The coronavirus pandemic has already required millions of people to accept limits on their personal freedoms, as countries around the world have imposed lockdowns and enforced strict social distancing measures in an effort to control the spread of Covid-19.
Lifting those restrictions may require people to sacrifice a degree of personal privacy, however — raising concerns among politicians and civil liberties advocates.
Dozens of countries have implemented, or are developing, mobile apps and other with few explicit safeguards, privacy experts and cybersecurity analysts have warned.
An analysis of the app by Defensive Lab Agency, a Paris-based cybersecurity consultancy, revealed that the software gathers a user’s identity, tracks their movements in real-time, and continuously checks if other people who have downloaded the app are nearby, HuffPost India reports. There is little clarity on who can access the data or how long it will stay on government servers, experts said. Moreover, the app’s user agreement states that the data can be used in the future for purposes other than epidemic control.
“I think the bigger concern is, is this going to open the floodgates of mass surveillance later on,” Pallavi Bedi, policy officer at the Center for Internet and Society, told HuffPost India.
Joseph Cannataci, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, recently warned that some countries risked sliding into authoritarianism if new emergency powers established during the pandemic are left unchecked.
“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat,” Cannataci told Reuters. “Any form of data can be misapplied in incredibly bad ways. If you have a leader who wants to abuse the system, the system is there.”
This month, a group of more than 100 civil society groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, urged governments to safeguard people’s rights, even as they adopt new measures to protect lives and curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty International’s tech division. “We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now.”
This week, as individual countries scrambled to develop their own digital surveillance programs, the European Union announced that it would develop common rules for using mobile apps to track the spread of the coronavirus. To assuage privacy concerns, the European Commission said that there will be a strict limit on the processing of personal data, which will be destroyed when the virus is under control.
“I fully support a European approach for the use of mobile applications and mobile data in response to the coronavirus pandemic in line with our fundamental rights,” said Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for values and transparency. “We will ensure this approach is transparent, proportional and based on people’s trust.”
With reporting from HuffPost France, HuffPost India, and Reuters.