As coronavirus fight leans on digital surveillance, beware the risks to civil liberties

https://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/3085587/coronavirus-fight-leans-digital-surveillance-beware-risks-civil

  • Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Israel and other countries offer evidence of how effective smartphone apps and other tools are in monitoring the public
  • But the same tools that help states track the virus’ spread could be used to achieve political goals and even total surveillance, so people must remain vigilant
People wear face masks as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus as they use a phone app to scan a code required to prove their health and travel status before being allowed to enter a shopping mall, in Beijing on May 2. Photo: AFP
People wear face masks as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus as they use a phone app to scan a code required to prove their health and travel status before being allowed to enter a shopping mall, in Beijing on May 2. Photo: AFP

The world is now at war with the coronavirus. Nations all around the world have resorted to using digital surveillance to fight the pandemic, but this might require members of society to give up several rights. Is the world ready to embrace this new norm?

States have been trying to increase control over society through information technologies. This development, however, is limited by the legal systems of many nations that require human rights to be respected. Nevertheless, states often shift balance between rights of people and security in favour of the latter. This process is developing very slowly and has somewhat changed over the course of the past decade.

The pandemic has led to serious measures by governments to control a sufficiently large group of people or a whole country by using technology. In some places, personal gadgets such as smartphones are used to track movements. For instance, Taiwan is using a mobile phone-based technology that notifies authorities when a person under quarantine has left their residence or has turned off his or her telephone. Similar practices are being used in Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, Israel and other countries. Though this technology could be used to fight the virus, at the same time it could be used for political gain or even total surveillance.

Tracking technology may be used to reduce and finally break the chain of infection. It has worked well in two of the initially most-affected nations, China and South Korea.

European countries have also started to use this technology to combat the virus. For instance, according to the regional health minister of Lombardy, the epicentre of the pandemic in Italy, local authorities are monitoring the movement of mobile phone users who refuse to stay at home.

World Health Organisation officials have said the virus could take up to five years to control. As the situation in many regions is getting worse, with more than 5 million global infections, many countries have reasons to justify total control over society to save as many lives as possible.

One should not forget that any intervention must have its limits. However, as long as this pandemic continues to terrorise the planet, enhanced digital surveillance might be the new norm the world community has to get used to.

Dr Roman Dremliuga, associate professor, School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia; and Mohd Hazmi bin Mohd Rusli, associate professor, Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur

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