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Rights Groups Raise Concerns Over COVID-19 Surveillance Methods

Ross Kelly



A host of civil rights groups and privacy advocates have called upon governments to respect human rights legislation during the fight against the coronavirus.

In a joint statement, more than 100 organisations, including Amnesty International, the World Wide Web Foundation and Open Rights Group, raised concerns about the use of big data and surveillance technologies to track and monitor populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In particular, the statement warned that increased surveillance practices could lead to a surge in discrimination and disproportionately affect minority groups.

Additionally, the signatories suggested that the pandemic could be used as a cover for states to introduce new laws which restrict civil liberties on a permanent basis.

“An increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response,” the statement said.

“Such measures also pose a risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm already marginalised communities,” it added.

Signatories have proposed eight rules by which they recommend governments adhere to when tackling the spread of coronavirus through emerging technologies. Some of the conditions recommend that:

  • Surveillance measure adopted to address the pandemic must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. They must be provided for by law and must be justified by legitimate public health objectives, as determined by the appropriate public health authorities, and be proportionate to those needs.
  • If governments expand monitoring and surveillance powers then such powers must be time-bound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current pandemic.
  • States must ensure that increased collection, retention, and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government’s must place a strong focus on protecting citizen data throughout the pandemic, the statement added. This includes ensuring high standards of security when personal data is collected from devices, applications and networks.

Similar standards must be applied to services involved in the collection, processing or storage of personal data, the signatories insisted.

In the UK, the use of citizen data to tackle the pandemic has been a key talking point. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) confirmed the government is able to track smartphone location data in its fight to curb the spread of infections – providing that data used in the process is anonymous.

In a statement last month, ICO Deputy Commissioner Steve Wood said: “Generalised location data trend analysis is helping to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Where this data is properly anonymised and aggregated, it does not fall under data protection law because no individual is identified. In these circumstances, privacy laws are not breached as long as the appropriate safeguards are in place.”

Wood added that the regulator will work closely with the government throughout the pandemic to ensure it adheres to data protection laws.

“The ICO has provided advice about how data protection law can continue to apply flexibly to protect lives and data. We will continue to work alongside government to provide advice about the application of data protection law during these unprecedented times,” Wood added.


Matthew Rice, Scotland Director at Open Rights Group said that while surveillance methods play a crucial role in tackling COVID-19, the government must ensure transparency throughout and place a strong focus on ensuring citizen privacy.

He said: “In the months to come the use of location data to track individuals – and contact with those with coronavirus – is going to be key for lifting the lockdown. It is also going to be vital that the Government gets this right, and there are many ways this could go wrong.

“Getting users to install and use an application, and share location information, creates huge privacy and personal risks. If the tracking is done alongside private partners these relationships need to be underpinned by publicly accessible agreements necessary to assess their impact on privacy and human rights.”

Rice added: “Large scale collection of everyone’s location all the time using surveillance powers is not the right way forward on this. It risks undermining the public trust, and right now that is the most vital currency the UK Government needs to protect.

“We need to see a clearer response from the UK Government about what technology and what powers they are going to use to track coronavirus, this needs to be accompanied with a commitment to implementing a system that respects the privacy of millions of people as best we can.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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