Governments are turning to mass digital surveillance to control the coronavirus

The health crisis caused by the coronavirus is unprecedented. Extraordinary situations require extraordinary measures, it is often said, but this phrase also implies that measures and resources are being taken that, in other circumstances, would not be tolerated.

The first reactions in almost all countries that have been hit by the virus have been to confine their citizens to their homes, yet people continue to move out of necessity and have contact with other people. However, some countries are turning to data technology and mass surveillance to track the spread of the coronavirus.

When a new case appears, a newly infected person, the first thing to try to figure out is how many people have you had contact with in the last days and what have been your last movements. Finding out can be easier if you control data such as that collected by Facebook and Google applications.

Governments like China, Israel, the United States or Thailand are using these mass surveillance technologies to persecute the virus among their citizens. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced: “emergency regulations that will allow the use of digital media in the war against the coronavirus.” The leader explains that “these means will help us enormously to locate patients and, therefore, to stop the spread of the virus.”

Israel’s security agency often uses these technologies for the persecution and arrest of terrorists in the country, but now they will be used in part to track the infected: the government ” will be able to see who the people infected with the virus were with and what happened before and after they got infected. “

From this country, they commit to cancel these surveillance measures once the battle against the virus has been overcome. However, the measure was announced as something definitive even before the parliament itself will approve it, it should not be forgotten that the country is currently with a provisional government that does not have all the necessary powers.


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Countries like China are already an eminence in this type of technology, in this country they have long since opened the doors to these technologies that in other places have aroused many complaints. The video surveillance cameras that populate the Asian giant and that have facial recognition systems have been updated in recent months to locate people with fever and those who did not use the mandatory masks in the country.

Across the ocean, the city of San Francisco banned the use of facial recognition. However, the United States government is turning to other types of tracking technologies. According to the Washington Post, it maintains that the White House is in talks with Google and Facebook. Both companies already share the location data of their users, anonymously, with US investigative agencies.

Finally, in Thailand, it has reinforced an application used at airports to distribute a COVID-19 detection form with it. That form was already distributed on paper, but with the application, the government can request that the location and Bluetooth of the phone be activated.

Users do not usually give importance to this data when they activate it on their phones in exchange for functions in the applications they use and it is very likely that many consider it positive to collaborate with these technologies in such an exceptional and worrying case like the one we are experiencing. However, the question is whether, once the threat has passed, these governments will cancel this surveillance or continue using it without duly informing their citizens and without explaining the deprivation of rights and privacy that this implies.

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