ImpACT joins 100 organisations to call on governments to avoid creating digital age of ‘Big Brother’ as world fights COVID-19

LONDON - National measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 must not be allowed to pave the way for a new era of invasive digital citizen surveillance, says ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies. The London-based think tank joined 100 other civil liberties watch dogs and advocates—including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Acess Now—in signing a statement urging governments to respect human rights when using digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations.

Governments across the globe—especially those with populist leaders—are granting themselves greater executive powers to wield virtually dictatorial authority with little resistance

- Khalil Agha, Digital media Adviser for ImpACT

“Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care,” reads the statement. “However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response. Such measures also pose a risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm already marginalized communities.”

Khalil Agha, digital advisor for ImpACT International, notes that governments across the globe—especially those with populist leaders—are granting themselves greater executive powers to wield virtually dictatorial authority with little resistance. This is common, he says, in times when fear sweeps the general public.

“Yes, states need the authority to shut borders, enforce quarantines and track contacts with infected people,” says Agha. “But some governments are taking advantage of the public health crisis to seize new powers unchecked by safeguards to protect against abuse. If we are not very careful, these draconian measures could also shape civic life, politics and economies for decades to come.”

In the joint statement, the organisations say that governments must assure that any surveillance powers and tactics must be “lawful, necessary and proportionate.” In addition, expanded monitoring of residents should be limited to a specific period of time, rather than open-ended, with measures included to protect confidentiality of personal data and prevent discrimination—particularly against already marginalized groups, such as minority groups.

For example, China mobilized mass surveillance tools such as drones and CCTV cameras to monitor quarantined people. Other nations like Israel, Singapore and South Korea are also using a combination of location data, video camera footage and credit card information to track people.

Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, has warned: “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.” 

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