Police in France using “Drone 06” to enforce quarantine measures in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, March 27, 2020 © 2020 Sipa via AP Images

(Washington, DC) – Governments’ use of digital surveillance technologies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic should respect human rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Access Now, Privacy International, and 103 other organizations said in a joint statement today. The groups urged governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic by respecting human rights when using digital technologies to track and monitor people.

“COVID-19 is an unprecedented health crisis, but governments must not use the virus as cover to introduce invasive or pervasive digital surveillance,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Any surveillance measures must have a legal basis, be narrowly tailored to meet a legitimate public health goal, and contain safeguards against abuse.”

Governments are increasingly turning to digital surveillance to monitor and contain the pandemic. There are currently reports that 24 countries are undertaking telecommunications location tracking and 14 countries are using applications for contact tracing or quarantine enforcement.

Human Rights Watch has found that the governments in China and Russia are expanding their surveillance capabilities and restricting rights in ways that are not justified on public health grounds to counter the spread of COVID-19. Public health authorities in the United States are also working closely with the private sector to aggregate and analyze vast pools of data about people’s movements, in a bid to gain insights into how the virus is spreading and assess the effectiveness of public health interventions. However, those large datasets often do not fairly represent communities, especially people living in poverty and other minorities.

 “Trying to figure out how COVID-19 spreads by using incomplete and discriminatory datasets threatens our human rights,” said Amos Toh, senior researcher on artificial intelligence at Human Rights Watch. “This could lead to more draconian enforcement of public health measures that unfairly penalize people living in poverty and other minority communities.” 

Some of the surveillance measures being proposed today could fundamentally reshape the relationship between governments and their people, eroding trust in public authorities. This could not only cause long-term damage to human rights, but even during the emergency could undermine efforts to respond to the public health crisis.  

The statement outlines eight conditions governments should meet to allow for increased digital surveillance, including that their measures:

  • Are lawful, necessary and proportionate, transparent, and justified by legitimate public health objectives;
  • Are time-bound and only continue for as long as necessary to address the pandemic;
  • Are limited in scope and purpose, used only for the purposes of responding to the pandemic;
  • Ensure sufficient security of any personal data that is collected;
  • Mitigate any risk of enabling discrimination or other rights abuses against marginalized populations;
  • Are transparent about any data-sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities;
  • Incorporate protections and safeguards against abusive surveillance, and give people access to effective remedies; and
  • Provide for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders in data collection efforts.

“Digital technology could help in combating this pandemic and keeping people safe, but only if governments follow human rights rules when using these tools,” Brown said.