International Proposals for Warrantless Location Surveillance To Fight COVID-19

0
51

by Katitza Rodriguez and Seth Schoen, Activist Post:

Time and again, governments have used crises to expand their power, and often their intrusion into citizens’ lives. The COVID-19 pandemic has seen this pattern play out on a huge scale. From deploying drones or ankle monitors to enforce quarantine orders to proposals to use face recognition or thermal imaging cameras for monitoring public spaces, governments around the world have been adopting intrusive measures in their quest to contain the pandemic.

EFF has fought for years against the often secretive governmental use of cell phone location data. Governments have repeatedly sought to obtain this data without a court order, dodged oversight of how they used and accessed it, misleadingly downplayed its sensitivity, and forced mobile operators to retain it. In the past, these uses were most often justified with arguments of law enforcement or national security necessity. Now, some of the same location surveillance powers are being demanded—or sometimes simply seized—without making a significant contribution to containing COVID-19. Despite the lack of evidence to show the effectiveness of location data to stop the spread of the virus, a number of countries’ governments have used the crisis to introduce completely new surveillance powers or extend old ones to new COVID-related purposes. For example, data retention laws compel telecom companies to continuously collect and store metadata of a whole population for a certain period of time. In Europe, the Court of Justice of the European Union declared such mandates illegal under EU law.

Like other emergency measures, it may be an uphill battle to roll back new location surveillance once the epidemic subsides. And because governments have not shown its effectiveness, there’s no justification for this intrusion on people’s fundamental freedoms in the first place.

Individualized Location Tracking

Mobile carriers happen to know their subscribers’ phone’s locations (usually the same as the locations of the subscribers themselves) from moment to moment because of the way cellular networks work. That knowledge has turned into one of the most extensive data sources for governments—and not infrequently advertisers, stalkers, or spies—interested in tracking people’s movements. But while phone location data is sufficient to show whether someone went to church or the movies, it simply is not accurate enough to show whether two people were close enough together to transmit the virus (commonly characterized as a distance of two meters, or about six feet).

While location surveillance is problematic at any time, the coronavirus crisis has led to a rapid uptick in its use; many measures to facilitate it have been passed by fast-tracked legislative procedures during national state of emergencies. Some governments have even bypassed legislators entirely and relied on executive power to roll out expanded location surveillance—making it even less transparent and democratically legitimate than usual. Governments may use the urgency of the crisis to erode limits on the ways people’s location histories can be used, demand this data be turned over to authorities in bulk, or require companies to stockpile records of where their customers have been.

COVID-inspired cell phone location surveillance around the globe

Attempts at rapid expansions of government location surveillance authority have come to light in at least seven countries.

In Israel, in a significant win for privacy, Israel’s High Court of Justice has recently revoked the authorization of the police to access location data for contact tracing without a court order. On March 16th, the government had approved emergency regulations48 hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his government’s intention to approve health tracking methods. The regulations enabled both the police and Israel’s domestic security agency (usually known as Shabak or Shin Bet, after its Hebrew acronym) to track the whereabouts of persons that might be infected or are suspected to be infected with COVID-19 without a warrant. The emergency regulation has now been suspended, and the Court has ordered that the government address the use of mobile phone tracking through legislation. Despite the win, the fight against warrantless access to location data is far from over: on May 5th, the parliament’s Intelligence Subcommittee voted 6-3 to extend the Shin Bet’s warrantless access to location data to track infected people, while the government is working towards advancing legislation to enable this form of surveillance more permanently. Right after the approval of the emergency regulations on March 16th, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition to Israel’s High Court stressing the need to protect democracy during the pandemic:

Democracy is measured precisely in those situations when the public is afraid, exposed day and night to nightmare scenarios […]. Precisely in such moments, it is vital to act in a considered and level-headed manner, and not to take draconian and extreme decisions and to accustom the public to the use of undemocratic means […].

In South Africa, where a state of disaster has been in place since March 15th, the government amended a law to create a COVID-19 Tracing Database. The database will include personal data of those who are infected or suspected to be infected of COVID-19, including their COVID-19 test results, as well as the details of those who have come or are suspected to have come into contact with them. The Act authorizes the Director-General of Health to order telecom companies to disclose the location of infected or suspected to be infected person, without prior notice, as well as the location of those who were in contact or suspected to have been in contact with them, and to included all of this data in the COVID-19 Tracing Database. The law was met with severe backlash from civil society, and has since been amended twice. In a win for privacy, the last amendment deleted the provisions that obliged telecommunications companies to disclose location data for inclusion in that database.

Poland, which has been in a state of emergency since mid-March, has a track record of encroaching on the rule of law, even triggering the EU’s legal process for addressing violations of European values. The EU Commission has stated that the Polish judiciary is under “the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law.” Now with COVID-19, the Polish government has also introduced several COVID acts, providing new surveillance powers for the executive. Article 11 of the COVID-19 act obliges telecom operators to collect and give access to location data of people infected with COVID-19 or those under quarantine upon a simple request, as well as aggregate location data of an operator’s clients. The new legislation states that these measures will remain in place until the pandemic has ended.

Read More @ ActivistPost.com

Loading...