A year-long investigation conducted by Associated Press reveals the chilling reality behind apps that are supposed to protect individuals from the coronavirus but are instead turned against them, threatening their civil rights and freedoms.
An investigative report by the Associated Press (AP) found that governments around the world have been using software meant to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to track and trace people for penal purposes.
In occupied East Jerusalem, a young man working at a cafe was the recipient of a text message from Israeli security agency Shin Bet: “You have been spotted as having participated in acts of violence in the Al Aqsa Mosque,” it said in Arabic. “We will hold you accountable.”
“It’s like the government is in your bag,” said Majd Ramlawi, 19. “When you move, the government is with you with this phone.”
Shin Bet had sent the same text message to hundreds of others, many of whom only lived or worked in the area, and did not have anything to do with the protests. The agency was using coronavirus apps in place of surveillance technology – ”against Israeli residents and citizens for purposes entirely unrelated to Covid-19,” as the report puts it.
During the pandemic that devastated the world, killing 6.67 million people and wreaking havoc on the global economy, people were willing to supply private personal information about themselves to official apps that promised to alert them to the presence of the virus in their vicinity and keep them safe.
Little did they know that authorities would use these technologies and data to prevent activists from congregating or travelling to meeting places, profile certain minority groups, and link health info to law enforcement tools.
AP has noted that these practices were not limited to one country or city, pointing out that they have been in use “from Beijing to occupied East Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia.”
The culmination of research and interviews over a year, the report suggests that governments have misused these technologies to “flatten the curve”, putting them to work for surveillance and policing without proper consent from individuals being put under the metaphorical microscope.
“Any intervention that increases state power to monitor individuals has a long tail and is a ratcheting system,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Toronto-based internet watchdog Citizen Lab told AP. “Once you get it, it’s very unlikely it will ever go away.”
China hacks a protest
In June, a group of bank customers wanted to travel to Henan’s provincial capital Zhengzhou to demonstrate about not being able to access their online bank accounts, after finding out a police investigation had blocked 40 billion yuan in funds.
Each one of them left their homes after having taken a Covid-19 test and testing negative, only to be labelled ‘Code Red’ as they scanned their QR codes at their destination stations or airports.
One of the potential protesters, bank customer Xu Zhihao said he met three others at the basement of the train station in Zhengzhou who had come to protest but were held back. They found out via a group chat that hundreds of others had had similar experiences trying to get to the protest location, and were picked up before they reached it.
AP’s discussions with dissidents and human rights activists suggest China will continue to use local-level health codes that have the means to severely limit mobility using public health as an excuse in order to exercise social control.
The report also mentions instances of Beijing’s encouragement of local health officials linking to national databases.
“It’s the governance model, the philosophy behind it is to strengthen social control through technology. It’s strengthened by the health app, and it’s definitely going to stay after Covid is over,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I think it’s very, very powerful.”
Privacy in India
Technologies that were supposed to fight against the spread of the coronavirus, such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence, became very popular following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came into power in 2014.
The country is now on its way to establish one of the world’s largest facial recognition networks, plugged into a database that has photographs, fingerprints, police records and other relevant data.
“Surveillance today is being posed as a technological panacea to large social problems in India, which has brought us very close to China,” Apar Gupta, executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, said. “There is no law. There are no safeguards. And this is a general purpose deployment of mass surveillance.”
Cases in Australia and the US
Australia’s conservative former Prime Minister Scott Morrison had appointed himself the minister of five departments during the two years the country instituted strict border controls. One of them was the Department of Health. Its app would notify users that they had been in close proximity to someone infected with the coronavirus.
Except in the case of a shooting death of biker gang leader Nick Martin in Perth, police got a hold of QR code check-in data from the health apps of close to 2,500 fans who were at the December 2020 race. According to AP, the data included names, phone numbers and arrival times.
The police were able to solve the murder case with old-fashioned methods without resorting to the QR data. But they had breached a promise of privacy by Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan on Facebook who had vowed the Covid-related data would only be accessible to healthcare professionals.
On the other side of the world, the US federal government ended up building its own “surveillance toolkit” as the AP calls it –– “including two contracts in 2020 worth $24.9 million to the data mining and surveillance company Palantir Technologies.”
Immigrant rights group Just Futures Law shared documents they obtained under the Freedom of Information Act with AP, which demonstrate the ways in which federal officials wondered about how they could use the data collected, beyond a Covid-19 response.
“What Covid did was accelerate state use of these tools and that data and normalise it, so it fit a narrative about there being a public benefit,” Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab said. “Now the question is, are we going to be capable of having a reckoning around the use of this data, or is this the new normal?”