Almost 40 million people around the world have contracted Covid-19 and more than a million have died from the virus. The devastation has rippled even further, thanks to a global recession and rising political unrest. And as all of this unfolds, new research indicates that the governments around the world have exploited the pandemic to expand their domestic surveillance capabilities and curtail internet freedom and speech.
The human and digital rights watchdog Freedom House today published its annual “Freedom on the Net” report, which tracks the ebb and flow of censorship laws, net neutrality protections, internet shutdowns, and more around the world. This year’s report, which covers the period from June 2019 through May 2020, encompasses not only the Covid-19 pandemic but the trade war between the US and China, which has resulted in a dramatic acceleration of the cyber sovereignty movement. Combined with numerous other geopolitical clashes that have impacted digital rights, Freedom House found that global internet freedom has been broadly curtailed in 2020.
“Political leaders used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on free expression and limit access to information,” Freedom House director for democracy and technology Adrian Shahbaz told reporters ahead of the report’s release. “We traced three commonly used tactics. First in at least 45 countries, activists, journalists, and other members of the public were arrested or charged with criminal offenses for online speech related to the pandemic. Second in at least 20 countries governments cited the pandemic emergency to impose vague or overly broad speech restrictions. Third, governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts to censor unfavorable health statistics, corruption allegations, and other Covid-19-related content.”
The research looks at 65 countries that, according to Freedom House, represent about 87 percent of the world’s internet users. Some of the examples fit into government initiatives that were already in motion before the pandemic. In China, surveillance technology developed in the Xinjiang region—like handheld devices for pulling data off of citizens’ phones—is now proliferating in other parts of the country. Freedom House researchers say that individuals around China have also reported pandemic-related intrusions, like being told to put webcams inside their houses and outside their doors for alleged quarantine enforcement. During the year covered by the report, the Communist Party also continued to imprison journalists, activists, and other citizens for exposing government corruption, being critical of General Secretary Xi Jinping, supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, operating human rights websites, taking anti-censorship stances, and simply being members of ethnic and religious minority groups. China ranked last in the Freedom of the Net report for the sixth consecutive year.
“What we’re seeing right now is the normalization of the sort of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese government has long sought to mainstream,” Shahbaz says.
The pandemic has also spurred the development of new surveillance mechanisms. Contact tracing apps can be designed securely and privately if they don’t collect geolocation data, only store personal information locally on a user’s devices, and ideally are open source. But many of the 54 countries Freedom House studied that have implemented digital contact tracing have departed drastically from these best practices. In Russia, for example, the state’s social monitoring app can access not just GPS data, but call records and other user information. The app even periodically requests that users submit selfies when quarantine orders are in effect. In practice, the app has resulted in arbitrary and excessive fines for users, sometimes mistaking identical twins for each other or imposing a penalty when a user accidentally sleeps through a compliance call. Meanwhile in India the most popular contract tracing app, Aarogya Setu, has 50 million users and sends their information, including GPS data, to government servers.
The overreaches go beyond contact tracing and health status apps as well. Freedom House found that the governments of at least 30 countries are taking advantage of the pandemic to specifically expand other mass surveillance capabilities, typically with the help of telecoms and tech companies. For example, Ecuador has developed an entire public health platform that combines personal data from a Covid-19 app and surveillance footage with other location data from satellites and citizens’ phones. Yet even with this massive trove of information, little is known about how Ecuadorean authorities store the data and who can access it. Similarly, Pakistan’s intelligence agency has turned one of its anti-terrorism systems into a virus-tracking platform. Freedom House says there are reports of intelligence agents going so far as to tap hospital phone lines to listen in on Covid-19 patients’ calls and see if their family and friends admit to having virus symptoms themselves.
Throughout the pandemic, people living in at least 13 countries around the world also had to contend with government-imposed internet shutdowns. At the same time, the report warns that the pandemic has accelerated adoption of biometric surveillance like facial recognition and algorithmic decision-making across a number of sectors, including health care, policing, education, finance, immigration, and commerce. And crucially, the research found that many of the Covid-19 contract apps, monitoring tools, and government platforms created in the name of public health during the pandemic haven’t actually been proven to help limit transmission or keep people safe.
“Authorities cited the pandemic to justify expanded surveillance powers and the deployment of new technologies that were once seen as too intrusive,” Shabaz says. “But the rapid and unchecked rollout of these tools presents an immense risk to privacy, transparency, and broader human rights. And these surveillance systems would be remarkably difficult, if not impossible, to decommission. We’re sleepwalking into a world where our most sensitive personal and biometric data will soon be at the mercy of private companies, security agencies, and even cybercriminals.”
While there was a lot of worrying and problematic news in the report, it does also contain some hopeful signs about the future of internet freedom. Twenty-six countries declined in their ratings compared to last year, but 22 improved. Freedom on the Net project leader Allie Funk notes that there were some crucial judicial victories around the world during the period the report examined. For example, litigation in Pakistan resulted in a court denouncing arbitrary website blocking as a violation of due process, and judges in Germany, South Africa, and Brazil all took steps to curtail state surveillance powers. Last summer, a Sudanese court even ordered an end to the country’s weeks-long internet shutdown. And the report points out that local and state-level activism in the United States has resulted in various limits and bans on the use of facial recognition technology.
“All of these positive examples really can lay out a playbook of how to protect internet freedom as we move forward within the pandemic and also once this pandemic wraps up,” Funk says.
As state surveillance regimes and censorship mechanisms proliferate around the world, though, there’s a pressing need for more countries to actually start running those plays instead of using the pandemic as cover to push the boundaries of personal privacy rights more and more.
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