It’s fair to say that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has inspired global panic. It first began with people stocking their pantries with shelf stable goods and hoarding every roll of toilet paper in sight. States and countries began issuing curfews, “stay at home” orders, and quarantine policies. Healthcare workers and first responders began working double time to care for the sick. Governments sent stimulus checks out to preserve the economy while the country was in a state of mandatory shutdowns for many non-essential businesses. But governments could only do so much.
In an effort to gain the upper hand, some governments began instituting highly questionable policies to help monitor the spread of the virus. Governments are using technology to surveil citizens who have or may have COVID-19, in a clear violation of their rights.
It Began With China
The novel coronavirus saw its first ever outbreak in and around Wuhan, China. The government has been heavily criticized for the way it approached the matter – they went so far as to censor reports and block internet access to prevent the spread of information within the country. The Chinese government developed a digital system to sort citizens into three categories.
The first category, “green”, were citizens least likely to have the virus. Their movements were not heavily restricted. Yellow and red citizens, those who were infected or likely to be infected, were prohibited from using public transportation and entering most buildings where they may encounter others.
In Hong Kong, infected citizens were provided with GPS tracking wristbands that monitored their every movement. These wristbands were a temporary measure and citizens can discontinue using them once they are free from infection. Other methods come without precedent, and could have long term consequences for the privacy of entire populations.
How Countries Invade the Privacy of Their People Monitoring COVID-19
Major US cities, many regions of the UK, and highly populated areas of countries like Australia and Spain utilize helicopters or aerial drones to watch people in gathering places, assuring that social distancing guidelines are being maintained.
Countries like Poland, the UK, the US, Austria, and Belgium are utilizing smartphone GPS data to spot large groups of people. Some countries are in talks with tech companies like Apple and Google to determine the best way to utilize Bluetooth technology on people’s smartphones to track large groups and surveil those they suspect may be carrying COVD-19.
South Korea utilizes a full-fledged monitoring system that sends out alerts to the population. If someone diagnosed with COVD-19 is within a certain set distance of other individuals, an alert is pushed to their phone. This alert contains personally identifying information about the individual, including any credit card transactions they may have made in the area.
Ecuador and Taiwan have taken things one step further, monitoring the phone signals of those who were ordered into quarantine to ascertain that they do not leave their property. If their phone signals are found outside of a specific boundary, law enforcement can be notified.
This Has Happened Before
In the past, governments have utilized similar systems to track people who have been diagnosed with or are suspected to have certain illnesses. During the AIDS crisis, the government tried to institute policies where the names of every HIV or AIDS positive patient was reported to a central authority. This was done with the intention of informing that person’s prior sexual partners or potential sexual partners of the patient’s current HIV/AIDS status.
Healthcare providers weren’t on board with the move. They felt that such drastic measures would discourage anyone who may have come into contact with the virus to be tested or treated, ultimately leading to more infections and deaths and exponentially worsening the epidemic.
Patient Rights to Privacy
Healthcare providers don’t want a repeat of the HIV/AIDS fiasco. This type of surveillance poses significant rights violations on multiple fronts. Outside of the intimidation that comes with getting tested, being outed, and getting tracked, these systems also violate the patients’ rights to privacy regarding their healthcare status.
Countries like the United States utilize the HIPAA act, legally leaving patients’ medical info on a need-to-know basis. While healthcare rights and legalities will vary from country to country, many places recognize that medical information should be treated as confidential information. Stalking people or disclosing their statuses directly violates the rights of the patient.
Overall Rights to Privacy
Once these surveillance systems and methods have been adopted, there’s no telling if or when they will ever be rescinded. Following the September 11th terrorist attack, all methods and modes of surveillance permanently changed. For example, it is much more of an arduous process to board an airplane. These new regulations never changed – they became a permanent way of being and a necessary security measure after the terrorist attack exposed a flaw in the system.
Now that governments are developing the capability of tracking and monitoring gatherings, there’s no way to know if or when they will stop. The moment this technology exists, it’s able to be used indefinitely. These surveillance efforts can easily far exceed the first wave of COVID-19 before herd immunity and vaccinations are readily available, giving governments a new permanent spying power that can be used for nefarious purposes.
When this infrastructure exists, it can easily be compromised. Even if governments don’t take an active interest in maintaining these programs after COVID-19 cases have levelled off, they will always have the option to do so. So will hackers, or any other malicious entity that wants to track people or spy on large groups of people.
The Response of Human Rights Groups
Well over 100 human rights watchdog groups have expressed their distaste for these widely adopted surveillance measures, calling to attention their potential for gross misuse and highlighting the undue scrutiny placed upon law abiding citizens and a result of global monitoring programs.
Despite these objections, many countries show no signs of backing down. Governments continue to develop these technologies and will soon have access to the greatest surveillance system known to man. We can only hope they don’t abuse it.