WASHINGTON: Digital surveillance and smartphone technology may prove helpful in containing the coronavirus pandemic — but some activists fear this could mean lasting harm to privacy and digital rights.

From China to Singapore to Israel, governments have ordered electronic monitoring of their citizens’ movements in an effort to limit contagion. In Europe and the United States, technology firms have begun sharing “anonymised” smartphone data to better track the outbreak.

These moves have prompted soul-searching by privacy activists who acknowledge the need for technology to save lives while fretting over the potential for abuse.

“Governments around the world are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers intended to contain the virus’ spread,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a post.

“Many would invade our privacy, deter our free speech, and disparately burden vulnerable groups of people. Governments must show that such powers would actually be effective, science-based, necessary, and proportionate.”

The measures vary from place to place. Hong Kong ordered people arriving from overseas to wear tracking bracelets, and Singapore has a team of dedicated digital detectives monitoring those living under quarantine.

Israel’s security agency Shin Bet has begun using advanced technology and telecom data to track civilians.

In China, people have been given smartphone codes displayed in green, yellow, and red, determining where citizens can and cannot go.

China is also among the countries enhancing censorship about the crisis, human rights watchdog Freedom House said, while others are blocking websites or shutting off internet access.

“We have observed a number of concerning signs that authoritarian regimes are using Covid-19 as a pretext to suppress independent speech, increase surveillance, and otherwise restrict fundamental rights, going beyond what is justified by public health needs,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of human rights watchdog Freedom House.

Some activists cite the precedent of the September 11, 2001 attacks, which opened up the door to more invasive surveillance in the name of national security.

“There is a risk these tools will become normalised and continue even after the pandemic slows,” said Darrell West, who heads the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Technology Innovation.

But even some digital privacy defenders say it may be prudent to use some of the available data to help control the outbreak.

Published in Dawn, March 30th, 2020

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