As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, many governments adopted new technologies to trace the movements and health status of individuals in order to help control the spread of the virus. However, a recent lengthy investigation by The Associated Press (AP) has found that these technologies and the data they generated have also been used for purposes unrelated to the pandemic, including for the purpose of stifling dissent and harassing marginalized communities.
CHINA’S HEALTH CODE SYSTEM:
In China, the last major country to enforce strict COVID-19 lockdowns, citizens have been required to install smartphone apps that produce individual QR codes indicating their health status. The codes change from green to yellow or red depending on a person’s health status and their recent movements and interactions. The codes are used to restrict travel and access to public spaces, with red codes indicating that an individual is not permitted to leave their home.
According to the AP, there is evidence that the health code system has been used to stifle dissent in China. Activists have reportedly had red codes imposed on them, effectively confining them to their homes and preventing them from participating in protests or other forms of political activity.
In early September, former wealth manager Yang Jiahao bought a train ticket to Beijing, where he planned to lodge various complaints with the central government. The night before, a woman he described as a handler invited him to dinner. Handlers are usually hired by state security as part of “stability maintenance” operations and can require people to meet or travel when authorities worry they could cause trouble. Yang had a meal with the handler, and the next morning Guangzhou health authorities reported a COVID-19 case less than a kilometer from where they dined, he said. Based on city regulations, Yang’s code should have turned yellow, requiring him to take a few COVID tests to show he was negative. Instead, the app turned red, even though tests showed that he didn’t have COVID. Yang was ordered to quarantine and a paper seal was placed on his door. “They can do whatever they want,” he said.
SURVEILLANCE IN JERUSALEM:
In Jerusalem, hundreds of people received text messages warning them that they had been spotted participating in acts of violence at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, even though many of them say they only lived or worked in the area and had nothing to do with the unrest. It later emerged that the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, had been using mass surveillance technology mobilized for coronavirus contact tracing for purposes unrelated to COVID-19.
The Shin Bet’s domestic use of the technology has generated an uproar over privacy and civil liberties within Israel, as well as questions about its accuracy. The Ministry of Communications, which oversees Israel’s telecommunications companies, refused a request seeking further details submitted for AP by the Movement for Freedom of Information, a nonprofit that frequently works with media organizations. 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.’” After Gan-Mor’s organization sued, Shin Bet made no apologies.
HEALTH DATA MISUSED IN INDIA:
In Hyderabad, India, health data was used to monitor the movements of people under quarantine. The AP reports that this data was then shared with spy agencies, who used it to track the movements of individuals who were not under quarantine.
In India, facial recognition and artificial intelligence technology exploded after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party swept into power in 2014, becoming a tool for police to monitor mass gatherings. The country is seeking to build what will be among the world’s largest facial recognition networks. As the pandemic took hold in early 2020, state and central governments tasked local police with enforcing mask mandates. Fines of up to $25, as much as 12 days’ pay for some laborers and unaffordable for the nearly 230 million people estimated to be living in poverty in India, were introduced in some places. In the south-central city of Hyderabad, police started taking pictures of people flaunting the mask mandate or simply wearing masks haphazardly.
SURVEILLANCE IN PERTH, AUSTRALIA:
The Associated Press (AP) investigation also examined the use of mass surveillance technologies and data in Perth, Australia. According to the report, authorities in Perth used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, and to harass marginalized communities.
In some cases, the data was shared with spy agencies, who used it to track the movements of individuals who were not under quarantine. The AP found that the misuse of these technologies and data has continued long after the initial lockdowns were lifted, with local health codes still being required for entry to certain public spaces.
According to AP:
After biker gang boss Nick Martin was shot and killed at a speedway in Perth, police accessed QR code check-in data from the health apps of 2,439 drag racing fans who attended the December 2020 race. It included names, phone numbers and arrival times. Police accessed the information despite Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan’s promise on Facebook that the COVID-related data would only be accessible to contact-tracing personnel at the Department of Health. The murder was eventually solved using entirely traditional policing tactics, including footprint matching, cellphone tracking and ultimately a confession. Western Australia police didn’t respond to requests for comment. Queensland and Victoria law enforcement also sought the public’s QR check-in data in connection with investigations. Police in both states did not address AP questions regarding why they sought the data, and lawmakers in Queensland and Victoria have since tightened the rules on police access to QR check-in information.
The AP’s investigation highlights the potential for mass surveillance technologies and data to be misused, even when they are initially introduced for the purpose of controlling the spread of a pandemic.