The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unprecedented global surge in digital surveillance, with billions of people facing enhanced monitoring that may prove difficult to roll back.
Governments around the world are employing vast programmes for mobile data tracking, apps to record personal contact with others, CCTV networks equipped with facial recognition, permission schemes to go outside and drones to enforce social isolation regimes.
The methods have been adopted by authoritarian states and democracies alike and have opened lucrative new markets for companies that extract, sell, and analyse private data.
In China, hundreds of millions have installed mandatory “health code” apps that determine whether users– given colour-coded designations of green, yellow, or red (for confirmed Covid-19 patients) – can travel or leave home.
In Europe, some of the world’s most privacy-conscious governments are collecting telecom data, employing drones and copying contact-tracing apps pioneered in Asia.
In the US, Apple and Google have announced they will open up their mobile operating systems to allow for similar apps, which will run on iPhones and Android phones alike.
Moscow, a city of 12 million people, will require citizens to have QR codes for travel on its streets and is seeking to employ its 100,000 surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology to enforce self-isolation schemes.
When Moscow did finally roll out its QR-code system this week, the website quickly crashed, and remained down on Monday morning. Privacy advocates have said personal data put into the system may not remain secure
Israel, with its global reputation for both state and private sector intelligence gathering technology, was quick to implement surveillance on a national scale, initially with phone tracking measures endorsed by the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
In India, local authorities have experimented with solutions such as mobile tracking apps, geolocated selfies, and releasing the addresses of coronavirus patients.
Contact-tracing apps and other methods to identify those who have been in contact with people infected with the disease were pioneered in Asia.
Hong Kong issues tracking wristbands to international arrivals that connect to a StayHomeSafe mobile app and a registered “quarantine address”, while Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which uses Bluetooth to find people within two metres of someone diagnosed with Covid-19 for half an hour or more, has been made open source to allow other countries to copy it.
Contact-tracing has been especially effective in South Korea, which has employed GPS data, CCTV footage and and credit card records to identify and warn suspected victims of the disease
This is happening around the world. Whether or not these measures will be rolled back depends entirely on public oversight.
Authorities in Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland and the UK have all either expressed an interest or started to roll out mobile phone apps to help them track and trace those infected with the virus.
The UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced plans on Sunday for a Bluetooth-based app that will warn users if they have recently been in close proximity to someone suspected to be infected with the coronavirus.
The Dutch health minister, Hugo de Jonge, said last week at least 60% of the population would need to download the Netherlands’ similar app for it be effective. “We are looking at whether you can require everyone to do it,” he said during a press conference.
Meanwhile, telecom operators in Italy, Spain and other EU countries have released “heat maps” of users’ movements, arguing that the data was sufficiently anonymised and aggregated to prevent the tracking of individuals, which would be a potential violation of GDPR.
With the proliferation of digital surveillance methods, a number of global initiatives have appeared to chart their progress around the globe.