Will coronavirus accelerate global censorship and surveillance?

Internet companies are scrambling, quite rightly, to control the flood of misinformation on their platforms as coronavirus panic sweeps the world.

But the need to control dangerous myths about the virus is also being exploited by repressive governments, which are using the pandemic to increase and consolidate their internet censorship and surveillance.

Chief of these, of course, is China, already one of the most repressive regimes in the world. According to academic research lab Citizen Lab, live-streaming platform YY started censoring coronavirus keywords at the end of December, with the WeChat messaging and social media platform following suit shortly after. 

Iran, too, has been heavily censoring its internet since late last year, during widespread protests over fuel prices; it's now believed to be dramatically understating the number of coronavirus cases in the country.

Surveillance on the rise

In terms of surveillance, too, China has again long led the field. And, now, in light of the pandemic, the existing, vast facial recognition network is being tweaked to detect those not wearing masks, and even people with high temperatures. QR codes are required to enter buildings, and individuals' risk profiles are scored. 

In one, incredibly intrusive initiative, citizens' movements are tracked using their smartphones - but here, though, there's cause for approval. The measure has been instrumental in slowing the spread of the virus, and several other countries are considering following suit.

South Korea, too, credits smartphone tracking with a sharp reduction in new coronavirus cases. The data's used to create a map that allows other residents to check whether they've encountered a victim and could be a risk.

Israel is looking set to do something similar, with a new set of measures approved recently removing the need for a court order in order to track individuals' phones. 

Singapore, meanwhile, has now launched an app that allows people to be tracked with an accuracy of two metres, and Taiwan's 'electronic fence' alerts the authorities when someone who is supposed to be quarantining leaves the house.

Many other countries are considering some form of smartphone tracking, with the US recently in talks with Google, Facebook, Apple and other tech companies. 

Privacy concerns

However, there's been strong objection to smartphone tracking on privacy grounds - concerns that have led Belgium, Italy and other nations to use anonymised data to track patterns of infection, but not to trace and warn individuals.

Apps such as these present difficult choices; and even privacy groups aren't entirely opposed to their use. Instead, they're focusing on making sure that any increased powers of surveillance are strictly time-limited.

Privacy International, for example, is calling for measures around the world to be “temporary, necessary, and proportionate,” adding that “when the pandemic is over, such extraordinary measures must be put to an end and held to account.”

Meanwhile, the Open Rights Group is welcoming a new amendment to the UK's new Coronavirus Bill that would mean that it has to be renewed every six months, and will be 'sunsetted' after two years. While privacy protections are important, saving lives is more so, and compromise such as this is vital. As Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), writes, "During a disease outbreak, individual rights must sometimes give way to the greater good."