Is Governmental Surveillance for COVID-19 Containment a Step Too Far?

2 Apr 2020

Is Governmental Surveillance for COVID-19 Containment a Step Too Far?

There will come a time when it isn't 'They're spying on me through my phone' anymore. Eventually, it will be 'My phone is spying on me'.”

― Philip K. Dick, American science fiction writer

Mobile phone surveillance is not science fiction anymore, it is as real as it gets.

Philip Kindred Dick has passed away 38 years ago, and he has been way ahead of his time, perceived as the forefather of modern paranoid fiction. What is out of the boundary of conventional thought today may not be so outlandish tomorrow, and reality can be easily manipulated by the forces in power, as seen today. 

China and South Korea have deployed tracking and surveillance, Israel is passing on the laws to access private data, and the USA are bravely leading the battle with coronavirus outbreaks by mining data in massive volumes.  

Drawing Parallels Between Network and Disease Outbreaks

What do you do when your company is experiencing a local network outbreak?

You inform the employees about the fact, disconnect the local network from the Internet to stop the infection from spreading between local machines and from connecting to external sites. 

Essentially, you quarantine the network and block all ports used by malware from a clean, isolated machine. 

And what do you do when dealing with a rapidly-growing and extremely infectious real-life virus that is almost impossible to avoid? 

If you’re the government that is not shying away from oppression, you are probably hiding the truth about the severity of the threat until it’s too late and then think about deploying some privacy-violating tools to track the disease spread among the citizens. 

All to expand an already disturbing surveillance system among the scared population and to gain more control over their lives.

Health Code Color System and GPS Tracking Wristbands 

China is an undisputed world leader when it comes to mass surveillance, citizen tracking, and censorship. China doesn’t even have to pretend like it respects the privacy of its citizens.

The Great Firewall alone, that puts the Internet under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty, would be enough to make this country ahead of everyone else. It allows the Chinese state to dictate the narrative of the disease and to remove content that critiques the government. 

The state has improved its renowned street camera system by deploying a facial recognition system that is now used to identify and punish individuals that show symptoms.

But since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Chinese government has also invested in the Health Code color system and tracking bracelets, to expand its reach from the streets to households. Health Code color system is essentially an app that rates the probability of infection for particular individuals.

People use the app by logging in with their WeChat or Alipay profiles, so their mobile data, geo-location, account and travel history could be gathered and analyzed. If the person spent some time in hotspots or had contact with other potentially ill people, the app would assign a special color code to them. ‘Green’ to tag healthy citizens, ‘yellow’ to tag those who have to be quarantined, and red to tag the infected individuals.

To make this system work even more effectively, Chinese authorities introduced special wristbands in Hong Kong, to track the infected. People have to wear them at all times, and in case they don't, the app on the device informs the Department of Health about it. 

The system has advanced a couple of steps forward lately, and we can only imagine how intrusive the features of the future could be for Chinese civilians.

Why Do People Outside of China Should Also Take Notice?

The answer is pretty simple. 

Other governments took notice of how useful similar systems could be, both for mitigating the spread of the disease and for gaining even more control over their citizens.

Mobile phone data is used heavily to cast surveillance over citizens of South Korea, and Israel has passed an emergency law that would allow local authorities to access their cell phone location data. 

Understandably, people remain skeptical that the Israeli government would give up such power when the rampant spread of the coronavirus would be a trouble of the past. Legal positioning would most definitely outlast the virus and become normalized in the future.

The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it.” - Edward Snowden.

But perhaps the most concerning activity surrounding the systems to track the public comes from the United States of America. The White House has already talked with Facebook and Google about it, being interested if there was a way to gain access to the cell phone location data of all Americans.

If some discussions were held with Facebook and Google, then we could assume that WhatsApp and Instagram would be considered helpful tools in facilitating tracking, or at least data mining, as seen with Google’s sister company Verily

This COVID-19 testing online platform stands out as yet another one case of unnecessary data trade-off. 

Visitors have to create a new or use an exciting Google account to get risk score calculations to the novel coronavirus, which is based on their gender, age, travel history, health status, and contact with other people. How far off those calculations could be? There’s not enough information about that and even less transparency.

The Honeypot Fitness App Promoted by the Bureau 

Also, there’s always the FBI. It has promoted a fitness app lately on it’s Twitter page.

"Download the #FBI's Physical Fitness Test app to learn proper form for exercises you can do at home."

Both iOS and Android users have to grant permission manually to share location and network data. Users are also informed that their personal information associated with the app "is not transmitted to, or saved by, the FBI" while the privacy policy states that "individuals using this computer system are subject to having all of their activities monitored and recorded."

Do people really need an app to know how to do sit-ups and push-ups?

There’s no denying that the severity of the coronavirus is immense, by the technological means by which it can be contained could create a plethora of other problems, as explained in our recent blog post called “EARN IT Act Threatens to End End-to-End Encryption ‘For Good’.”

As stated by the EFF, governments must commit to transparency during the COVID-19 crisis. 

And people that value their privacy must stay extra cautious about what applications they download and use, and what data they share with them in the process.

Stay safe, and distance yourself not only from socialization but also from the social engineering tricks used by the state, if that’s even possible.

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