Best of 2020: COVID-19 crisis must not usher in surveillance state

By Dylan Bushell-Embling
Wednesday, 06 January, 2021

Best of 2020: COVID-19 crisis must not usher in surveillance state

Australia’s Digital Rights Watch has joined a global coalition of 100 human rights groups to call on world governments not to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a cover to usher in new digital surveillance capabilities.

In a joint statement, the signatories have urged governments to show leadership by ensuring the use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations during the outbreak is carried out strictly in line with human rights.

An increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as demanding access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

This threatens to violate trust and degrade trust in public authorities, which could undermine the effectiveness of a public health response during a time it is needed the most.

“This crisis offers an opportunity to demonstrate our shared humanity. We can make extraordinary efforts to fight this pandemic that are consistent with human rights standards and the rule of law,” Digital Rights Watch Chair Lizzie O’Shea said.

“The decisions that governments make now to confront the pandemic will shape what the world looks like in the future.”

The joint letter states that any surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic must be lawful, necessary and proportionate, and should be justified by legitimate public health objectives.

Any expansion of monitoring and surveillance powers introduced to control the pandemic must be time-bound and continue for only as long as is strictly necessary.

Governments should also take every effort to protect people’s data and ensure that the data is not used for any purpose other than controlling the pandemic. In addition, any response must incorporate accountability protections and safeguards against abuse.

The open letter is particularly timely for Australia, in light of the recent revelation that both federal and NSW government agencies have been provided access with location data of millions of customers of Vodafone Australia to monitor adherence with social distancing and stay-at-home measures.

According to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the collected data was aggregated and anonymised, and offered not requested by the government. But Vodafone Australia has insisted that the data was requested and said no personal information could be derived from the data provided.

But O’Shea said the revelation is concerning in light of the fact that it came a week after Prime Minister Scott Morrison outright denied such activity.

“It is unrealistic for the government to expect people to accept and comply with the measures they’ve put in place if they’re keeping activities such as this secret, or denying they’re happening when directly asked,” she said.

“We have an ugly history of secrecy and a lack of accountability when it comes to surveillance of people in Australia by our governments, and this latest fabrication only serves to further erode trust in government at a critical time.”

Digital Rights Watch is asking the government to address whether all telcos are providing data for the crisis, to confirm what specific information is being collected and whether the initiative is ongoing.

The rights group is also calling on the government to come clean on its surveillance plans during the crisis and seeking a guarantee that any measures will only be in place for the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

Image credit: ©

This article was first published on 6 April 2020

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