Countries are using greater surveillance measures to track Covid-19. What are they tracking?

Covid-19 is the first global health crisis that has surveillance technologies available for tracking cases. They might end up being permanent.
Privacy news
3 mins
A face mask being recorded on a computer screen.

Heightened global concerns over the novel coronavirus have compelled countries to implement measures such as flight suspensions, mandatory quarantine and work from home mandates, shutdowns of bars and restaurants, and, in some cases, border closures.

But one overlooked action to flatten the curve is the constant surveillance of those who have or could be carrying Covid-19. With online surveillance technologies now easily accessible for administrations to use on their citizens, there are real concerns over just how much data is collected in the name of public health.

Tools of choice: Real-time location tracking, facial recognition, and shady apps

So how are countries surveilling their citizens during this global pandemic? Some have resorted to using location data to track confirmed cases and monitor social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.

China’s robust mass-surveillance system means it already has the infrastructure to monitor its citizens’ movements, from new facial recognition software that identifies partially covered faces to forcing people to download software that gives color-coded QR codes that dictate whether you can enter buildings and public spaces or remain quarantined.

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Other countries have also harnessed surveillance technology to collect the location data of citizens in varying ways:

Public health precedes individual privacy during a crisis, but only during a crisis

The number of countries implementing forms of quarantine and social distancing surveillance is growing.

For now it appears appropriate, especially in countries that have done this successfully without blanket surveillance of their populations, like Singapore and Taiwan. Israel has also amended its emergency laws to clarify the duration and oversight of their operation, and how the information will be used.

But it’s all too easy for surveillance-heavy countries like China, and to a lesser extent the U.S. and UK, to get comfortable with this new level of privacy invasion, with no urgency to roll back the measures once the pandemic is managed. (Remember the “temporary” 100ml liquid limit on flights? That was 14 years ago.)

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation states in its blog on balancing civil liberties and public health:

“…Any extraordinary measures used to manage a specific crisis must not become permanent fixtures in the landscape of government intrusions into daily life. There is historical precedent for life-saving programs such as these, and their intrusions on digital liberties, to outlive their urgency.”

Mass location tracking (anonymized or otherwise) should not remain permanent fixtures in society. The EFF suggests drawing limitations to the measures being implemented, including an expiration on data collected, and on government surveillance powers once the pandemic has been contained.

It is hard to say whether these new measures will ever be rolled back, but given the strong trend towards greater surveillance rather than less prior to Covid-19, it is not unreasonable to suppose these surveillance methods will remain in some shape or form.

Is there a non-invasive way to protect public health?

While monitoring the general public for cases is necessary to quell its spread, we have to remember that Covid-19 only escalated so quickly into a global pandemic out of a fatal combination of denial, censorship, and delayed government responses to its emergence.

Rapidly deploying new surveillance measures—without considering how the information will be stored or when such measures will expire—leaves the possibility of these measures outlasting the pandemic, permanently eroding individual privacy.

Granted, it is not helpful to say that preventing a pandemic is better than containing it during a pandemic, but it is still useful to see that successfully clamping down on a viral pandemic doesn’t have to involve mass surveillance. Rapid responses from both a government and/or its civilians are key in preventing transmission.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.