Moscow is considering a highly intrusive, online regime for enforcing the lockdown imposed this week to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As of April 1, Russia had recorded more than 2,300 cases, 1,630 of them in Moscow. According to one media report all residents would need to request permission each time they want to leave the house.
Residents would register on a municipal website, providing their photo, address, and other data. When they want to leave the house, for any reason, they would have to log in and provide a reason – such as taking out the trash or walking the dog. If they want to go somewhere, residents must enter the address of their destination. The system would reply by providing a unique barcode or by sending a code over SMS to be shown to police if stopped. If someone is stopped by police without a code, they may be forced to return home or fined. People authorized to work from their offices would be issued a single code for trips to and from the office.
The proposal allows for authorities’ use of residents’ geolocation data and financial transactions to track movements and ensure compliance with the lockdown.
Many countries have imposed lockdown regimes and authorized police to check residents who leave their apartments. In circumstances such as this global pandemic, imposing lockdowns are well within governments’ rights if not duties. But lockdowns are not a carte blanche to violate rights, including to privacy. They need to be necessary, proportionate, and lawful.
Under the proposed online pass system, once authorities have access to personal and geolocation data, and possibly also banking data, they could obtain other information about people’s private lives, associations, and activities that do not serve the goal of containing and preventing the spread of COVID-19. Russia’s troubling record on digital privacy raises significant concerns about potential abuse of the information collected under this program.
Moscow’s public awareness campaigns about social distancing, hand-washing, and other preventative measures have been impressive. Authorities should stick with this and not intrusive, unjustified measures like snooping into people’s bank records. Other countries require residents to self-report why they need to leave their homes, not seek permission, and this should suffice. The pandemic is bad enough. We don’t need dystopia as well.