In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world were quick to use various surveillance technologies to help mitigate the virus’s spread, from drones monitoring crowds to enforced social distancing reliant on app-based contact tracing. But intrusive surveillance has not resulted in countries ending the pandemic. Instead, such powerful capabilities have left the door open to future human rights violations. Civil society can expect governments to justify using digital surveillance beyond the pandemic as a means to protect national security, implement governance priorities, and serve future public health interests. What is the cost of states’ growing use of these tools?
Historically, governments have used national security and public safety concerns to legitimize surveillance. They typically introduced new surveillance measures during times of crisis or leading up to the start of major sporting events. The Olympic Games, for example, are known for catalyzing heavy surveillance. The security measures for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, included installing 2,000 high-resolution cameras in the areas near the competitions. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, governments worldwide similarly broadened the surveillance mandates of state agencies and law enforcement.
Surveillance has become a central component of a digitally repressive governance model. The authorities in China have installed an array of digital surveillance technologies in nearly all subway stations across the country, including 5G-powered facial recognition systems and deep-learning-enabled luggage scanners. The motivation to monitor and predict “suspicious behaviors” has also led to a booming surveillance industry based on discredited pseudoscience, such as “emotion recognition” technologies. As the domestic market has reached saturation, Chinese companies have expanded internationally, especially to countries strategically important to China. China alone cannot be blamed for proliferating surveillance technologies to aid the functions of repressive governments, however. Western nations have historically developed backdoors to technology to allow for government intrusion. Democratic governments have also allowed companies to export these capabilities throughout the world with few restrictions, including to governments with poor human rights track records (as the Pegasus Project investigation shows).
An emerging risk is that governments will extend public health measures to digitally track the locations and biometric data of citizens. From March to May 2020, Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service used tracking technologies commonly employed in counterterrorism operations for contact tracing. South Korea, meanwhile, has established one of the most extensive contact tracing systems in the world, with authorities gathering data using credit card transaction logs, mobile phone location tracking, and closed-circuit television footage. Local governments and private companies in China also proudly demonstrated their abilities to locate cases of possible close contacts with the help of big data, without explaining how relevant data were collected, analyzed, and stored.
The negative implications of pervasive surveillance and personal data collection, even in situations of public health, are clear. There have been COVID-19-related data breaches in China and Israel, and the scope of publicly available data in South Korea has raised privacy concerns. Proper oversight and accountability measures are needed to safeguard citizens’ privacy and security, including detailing for how long data is gathered, stored, and used, as well as who has access to it, to reduce the potential for abuse and avoid mission creep.