Representative image
Representative image

Keeping a watch COVID-19 tech: Next bastion of surveillance

Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, AP has found that authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalised communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. 

NEW DELHI: In the pandemic’s bewildering early days, millions worldwide believed government officials who said they needed confidential data for new tech tools that could help stop coronavirus’ spread. In return, governments got a firehose of individuals’ private health details, photographs that captured their facial measurements and their home addresses. Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, AP has found that authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalised communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies. The issue has taken on fresh urgency almost three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID policies recently ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the country’s authoritarian leadership since the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For more than a year, AP journalists interviewed sources and pored over thousands of documents to trace how technologies marketed to “flatten the curve” were put to other uses. Just as the balance between privacy and national security shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has given officials justification to embed tracking tools in society that have lasted long after lockdowns.

“Any intervention that increases state power to monitor individuals has a long tail and is a ratcheting system,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Toronto-based internet watchdog Citizen Lab. “Once you get it, is very unlikely it will ever go away.” The apps and lockdowns are part of China’s sweeping pandemic prevention policies that have pushed the public to a breaking point. When an apartment fire in Urumqi last month left at least 10 dead, many blamed zero-tolerance COVID policies. That sparked demonstrations in major cities nationwide, the largest display of defiance in decades, after which the government announced it would only check health codes in “special places,” such as schools, hospitals and nursing homes.

There’s evidence that the health codes have been used to stifle dissent. In China, the last major country in the world to enforce strict COVID-19 lockdowns, citizens have been required to install cell-phone apps to move about freely in most cities. Some provincial governments have created local apps that can link health, location and even credit information, which leaves open the possibility for these apps or the national databases they draw from to be used to monitor people in the future, according to an AP review of procurement documents, research and interviews.

“It’s the governance model, the philosophy behind it is to strengthen social control through technology. It’s strengthened by the health app, and it’s definitely going to stay after COVID is over,” said Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I think it’s very, very powerful.” Technologies designed to combat COVID-19 were redirected by law enforcement and intelligence services in other democracies as governments expanded their digital arsenals amid the pandemic.

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 labourers 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.

Police Commissioner C.V. Anand said the city has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on patrol vehicles, CCTV cameras, facial recognition and geo-tracking applications and several hundred facial recognition cameras, among other technologies powered by algorithms or machine learning. Inside Hyderabad’s Command and Control Center, officers showed an AP reporter how they run CCTV camera footage through facial recognition software that scans images against a database of offenders.

“When (companies) decide to invest in a city, they first look at the law-and-order situation,” Anand said, defending the use of such tools as absolutely necessary. “People here are aware of what the technologies can do, and there is wholesome support for it.”

By May 2020, the police chief of Telangana state tweeted about his department rolling out AI-based software using CCTV to zero-in on people not wearing masks. The tweet included photos of the software overlaying coloured rectangles on the maskless faces of unsuspecting locals. More than a year later, police tweeted images of themselves using hand-held tablets to scan people’s faces using facial recognition software, according to a post from the official Twitter handle of the station house officer in the Amberpet neighborhood.

Police said the tablets, which can take ordinary photographs or link them to a facial recognition database of criminals, were a useful way for officers to catch and fine mask offenders. “When they see someone not wearing a mask, they go up to them, take a photo on their tablet, take down their details like phone number and name,” said B Guru Naidu, an inspector in Hyderabad’s South Zone. Officers decide who they deem suspicious, stoking fears among privacy advocates, some Muslims and members of Hyderabad’s lower-caste communities.

“If the patrolling officers suspect any person, they take their fingerprints or scan their face – the app on the tablet will then check these for any past criminal antecedents,” Naidu said. S Q Masood, a social activist who has led government transparency campaigns in Hyderabad, sees more at stake. India lacks a data protection law and even existing proposals won’t regulate surveillance technologies if they become law, said Apar Gupta, executive director of the New Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation.

Privacy advocates in India believe that such stepped-up actions under the pandemic could enable what they call 360 degree surveillance, under which things like housing, welfare, health and other kinds of data are all linked together to create a profile.

“Surveillance today is being posed as a technological panacea to large social problems in India, which has brought us very close to China,” Gupta said. “There is no law. There are no safeguards. And this is general purpose deployment of mass surveillance.”

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