Governments Worldwide Abuse COVID Surveillance Powers

Once the government has an excuse to electronically track everywhere you've been and everyone you've been near, abuses are predictable.


From social security numbers to toll booth scanners, the government's ability to track or surveil us will usually expand beyond their allegedly benign or useful original intention.

As Freedom House predicted in 2020, and as the Associated Press (A.P.) reported in detail this week, the tracking technologies designed to save lives from COVID-19 are used for many other government purposes.

A.P. examined what they rightly call the "firehose of individuals' private health details, photographs that captured their facial measurements and their home addresses" that governments gobbled up via allegedly life-saving COVID tracking methods (which are not widely believed to have done much good anyway).

The wire service finds many instances where "authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people's health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies."

China specifically requires citizens "to install cell-phone apps to move about freely in most cities. Drawing from telecommunications data and PCR test results, the apps produce individual QR codes that change from green to yellow or red, depending on a person's health status." These have been key to China's attempts to oppress its citizens in failed pursuit of "zero COVID." A.P. reports that the Chinese seem to have used illegitimate app declarations of COVID infection to detain people out to protest being illegitimately locked out of their online bank accounts.

Sketchy use of COVID-tracking technology extends well beyond the tyrannical grip of the Chinese Communist Party. Israel's Shin Bet has been using COVID tracking tools that mark people as having been near spots of Arab unrest to send ominous text messages telling people they "will be held accountable" for merely having their phone mark them as having been near the Al-Aqsa mosque where violence had occurred.

As A.P. reports:

Gil Gan-Mor, an attorney with the nonprofit Association for Civil Rights in Israel, estimates that hundreds of Arabs in Jerusalem received the threatening message during the unrest and said the mass text message blast was unprecedented.

"You cannot just say to people, 'We are watching you … and we will get revenge," he said. "You cannot use this tool to frighten people. If you have something against someone, you can put them on trial.'"

COVID has also been used as an excuse to further abuse pre-COVID surveillance tech: India has been using older facial recognition software more aggressively, allegedly to crack down on violations of mask mandates.

In Australia, that nation's

intelligence agencies were caught "incidentally" collecting data from the national COVIDSafe app….The national app was canceled in August by a new administration as a waste of money: it had identified only two positive COVID-19 cases that wouldn't have been found otherwise.

At the local level, people used apps to tap their phones against a site's QR code, logging their individual ID so that if a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, they could be contacted. The data sometimes was used for other purposes. Australian law enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in data as a sort of electronic dragnet to investigate crimes.

In the United States, COVID tracking was used as an excuse for the federal government "to build out its surveillance toolkit, including two contracts in 2020 worth $24.9 million to the data mining and surveillance company Palantir Technologies Inc. to support the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' pandemic response." For its part, the Centers for Disease Control "purchased detailed cellphone location data revealing people's daily whereabouts, nationwide. 'Mobility insights' data from at least 20 million devices could be used to 'project how much worse things would have been without the bans,' such as stay-at-home orders and business closures."

U.S. News and World Report earlier this year similarly reported on Germany using COVID tracking data in general criminal investigations. Fears of disease that led to creating real-time and savable digital records of where you have been and who you have been near will forever tempt governments to use them for whatever purpose government thinks convenient, a real-time searchable panopticon whose abuse was predicted.