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Life and Liberty Amid a Global Pandemic: What Does COVID-19 Mean for Digital Rights?

Mary Cruse examines the state of digital rights in the age of coronavirus

Each day, Uny Cao travels to a local vegetable market in his home city of Hangzhou. He avoids the subway, buses, and neighborhood parks for fear of damaging his rating.

Cao is a resident of China’s Zhejiang Province: a region that is stringently enforcing a new health passport system. Based around a QR code, the health passport allocates users with either a green, yellow, or red rating. In Hangzhou, where Cao lives, only green residents are permitted to freely travel around - yellow residents must quarantine for seven days, and red residents for 14 days.

Cao is currently a green resident, but he could lose his status at any time. Citizens are required to scan their QR code in order to enter markets, use public transportation, and move through different locations around the city. Entering an area that is determined to be high-risk for COVID-19 infection could result in a downgrade, confining Cao to his home.

Speaking to TechNode, Cao explained:

“A few days ago, they found a new case in City North. Rumor spread that if you have rented a shared bike in that region, your code might get a downgrade. So for those few days, I avoided renting shared bikes, in case they discover a new patient in my area.”

Hangzhou’s health passport is just one of a number of new digital initiatives that countries around the world are using to combat the spread of COVID-19. Apps, digital certificates, and direct messaging services have all been deployed in various countries to try and monitor and restrict the movement of people in order to curtail infection.

But while digital technologies can help spread information, protect citizens, and support public health, some of these new emergency measures are encroaching on user privacy and digital rights.

In Russia, facial recognition software is being used to make sure people who have been quarantined stay at home. The Israeli government has been criticized for emergency orders allowing the security service to track citizen’s movements through their mobile phones. And - according to a New York Times analysis - the same QR code app that Cao uses to travel around Hangzhou is transmitting information directly to the Chinese police force, unbeknownst to users.

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Some emergency measures are encroaching on digital rights

Historically, times of crisis have often been linked to restrictions in civil liberties. During WW2, Japanese-Americans were deemed a security threat and forced into internment camps. More recently, in response to 9/11, the UK and US governments both passed legislation allowing the indefinite detention of foreign nationals without trial.

There is no recent historical precedent for the COVID-19 pandemic; the crisis has rapidly and fundamentally transformed the lives of individuals around the world, and thrown up extraordinary new dilemmas for nations attempting to control the damage. But there are key parallels with crises of the past - civil liberties are once again at risk, except this time, the struggle between security and rights is taking place in a digital world.

What’s At Stake: The Risk to Digital Rights

Many of the new measures being introduced relate to digital tools and technologies: location data, cell phone data, biometrics, and electronic tags have all been exploited by governments in response to the pandemic. Given the urgency of the situation and the speed with which the coronavirus spreads, decision-makers have had to respond quickly.

However, the rush to implement new technologies has, in some cases, been at the expense of rigorous oversight. In some situations, privacy, transparency, and user control - key tenets of #GoodID - are at risk of being sidelined in favor of increased digital monitoring.

Tom Fisher, #GoodID Board Member and Senior Researcher at Privacy International, notes:

The impact on digital identity is going to be one of the long-term impacts of this pandemic. We're seeing an unprecedented wave of surveillance powers and technologies being deployed around the world, from the very basic, like stamping people's hands, to the tagging of people with electronic bracelets

During a recent #GoodIDChat on Twitter, co-led by Fisher, identity professionals discussed the scale of the challenge ahead of us.

Noting the worrying data capture practices of many new digital technologies, participants highlighted the lack of clarity around what happens to users’ data in the long-term, and observed a dangerous precedent being set for future data collection.

“[I]n the digital identity field more than any, what is deployed in the next few months risks remaining in place indefinitely,” Fisher explains. “The challenge is, measures introduced during a crisis are often going to miss proper oversight. We thus risk deploying systems in haste and then have to live for a long time with the associated exclusion, exploitation, and surveillance.”

A Third Way: Protecting Health, Safeguarding Privacy

But while digital technologies can be abused, they can also be a tremendously useful tool for combatting a global health crisis.

Digital contact tracing technology is a new tool in the epidemiologists toolkit, and an intervention that WHO have referred to as ‘the backbone of the coronavirus response.

Symptom-tracking apps, popular in the UK and US, could help individuals to support important research by securely sharing their anonymized health data with academics and policymakers. Secure video links are allowing patients to meet with their clinicians without having to risk physical contact.

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Digital technology can a tremendously useful tool for combatting a global health crisis

There is clearly a role for digital interventions in the fight against COVID-19. And these are extraordinary circumstances, so digital programs are, by necessity, being introduced more swiftly than in the past.

However, digital rights must remain at the forefront of decision making to secure interventions that protect health whilst still safeguarding privacy. As Fisher observes:

“People are already making sacrifices to their liberty and privacy to protect the health of themselves and others. But these measures need to be necessary and proportionate, and must last for only as long as is needed.”

If done in the right way - with oversight, regulation, and transparency - digital innovation can, quite literally, be a lifesaver. But there needs to be a concerted effort from all stakeholders - government, business, and identity advocates - to ensure that programs are implemented safely, transparently, and with #GoodID in mind.

Advocacy and Action: The Role of the Identity Community

So what can the identity community do to help safeguard digital rights in these unprecedented times?

Fisher cautions against the potential for profiteering in the current climate, noting that “this is a boom time for many businesses in the digital identity field, and this places a great deal of responsibility on those companies.” Instead, the current situation should be seized as an opportunity to raise awareness of digital rights and push for user-centered solutions.

Already, we’ve seen a surge of activity from identity professionals and organizations in response to coronavirus. Privacy International recently launched a tracker that monitors and collates government reactions to COVID-19 that potentially restrict rights. Articles like these - from Coindesk and Access Now - are helping to shine a light on potential digital rights abuses around the world and keep the issue high up in the news agenda.

In the recent #GoodIDChat between digital identity professionals, the topic of awareness-raising featured prominently: “We cannot stop talking about what #GoodID is,” said Teki Akutteh Falconer. “We should put out more information on how to get it right.”

Meanwhile, the advocacy organisation, Lawyers Hub Kenya, noted that, given the current reliance on digital technologies, people are: “curious on new concepts as the reality of a digital world dawns post Covid,” observing: “It is a good time to teach the public on the benefits of #GoodID.”

But the community’s work does not stop at awareness raising. There must also be dialogue between decision-makers and civil society organizations to ensure that future digital identity programs are underpinned by understanding and expertise.

Tom writes: “If you're a state or a business, the single most helpful thing to do is to listen to civil society. These are the people, on the ground who genuinely know the impact of these types of systems.”

As a new generation of digital policies and programs emerge amidst the current crisis, it is vital that decisions are made based on knowledge of the issues and understanding of the wider impact. As such, communication between decision-makers and experts will be the key factor that determines whether or not digital rights are shielded through this unique moment in history.

Ultimately, the notion of life versus liberty is a false dichotomy - we needn’t have to choose between our health and our rights; we can have both. But it is vital that policymakers, industry professionals, and identity advocates work together to ensure solutions that protect public health without infringing on rights.

We live in extraordinary times. The COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the world around us, dismantling old ways of doing things and introducing new threats, opportunities, and choices. How we handle digital rights in this crisis will impact on civil liberties for decades to come; the decisions we make now will help determine the shape of our digital future.