Almost 40 million People around the world have contracted Covid-19 and more than a million have died from the virus. The devastation has worsened thanks to a global recession and mounting political unrest. And while all of this is happening, new research suggests that governments around the world have taken advantage of the pandemic to expand their internal surveillance capabilities and restrict freedom and free speech online.
Human and digital rights watchdog Freedom House today released its annual Freedom on the Net report, tracking the ups and downs of censorship laws, net neutrality protections, internet shutdowns and more around the world. This year̵
“Political leaders used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on freedom of expression and restrict access to information,” Freedom House director Adrian Shahbaz for Democracy and Technology told reporters before the report was released. “We have pursued three commonly used tactics. First, activists, journalists and other members of the public have been arrested or charged with online speech-related crime related to the pandemic in at least 45 countries. Second, governments in at least 20 countries have spearheaded the urgency, impose vague or overly broad language restrictions. Third, governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts to censor unfavorable health stats, corruption allegations, and other content related to Covid-19. “
The study examines 65 countries which, according to Freedom House, make up around 87 percent of global internet users. Some of the examples fit into government initiatives that were in place before the pandemic. In China, surveillance technology developed in the Xinjiang region – such as handheld devices for retrieving data from citizens’ phones – is spreading to other parts of the country. Freedom House researchers say people across China have also reported pandemic-related interference, such as being asked to put webcams in their homes and doors to allegedly enforce quarantine. During the year, the Communist Party continued to detain journalists, activists and other citizens for exposing corruption in the government. It criticized General Secretary Xi Jinping, supported Hong Kong’s protests for democracy, ran human rights websites and took anti-censorship positions and simply members of ethnic and religious minorities. China ranked bottom in the Net Freedom Report for the sixth year in a row.
“What we are seeing right now is the normalization of the digital authoritarianism that the Chinese government has long tried to establish,” says Shahbaz.
The pandemic has also spurred the development of new surveillance mechanisms. Contact tracking apps can be designed to be safe and private if they don’t collect geolocation data, only store personal information locally on a user’s devices, and ideally are open source. However, many of the 54 Freedom House countries surveyed that have implemented digital contact tracing have deviated dramatically from these best practices. For example, in Russia, the state’s social monitoring app can access not only GPS data, but also call logs and other user information. The app even regularly prompts users to submit selfies when quarantine jobs are running. In practice, the app has resulted in arbitrary and excessive fines for users who sometimes confuse identical twins with each other or impose a penalty for accidentally allowing a user to sleep through a compliance call. In India, the most popular contract tracking app, Aarogya Setu, has 50 million users and sends its information, including GPS data, to government servers.
The overreaches also go beyond apps for contact tracking and health status. Freedom House noted that the governments of at least 30 countries are using the pandemic to purposefully expand other mass surveillance functions, typically with the help of telecommunications and technology companies. For example, Ecuador has developed a complete public health platform that combines personal data from a Covid-19 app and surveillance footage with other location data from satellites and citizen cell phones. Despite this vast amount of information, little is known about how the Ecuadorian authorities store the data and who can access it. Similarly, Pakistani intelligence has turned one of its counter-terrorism systems into a virus tracking platform. According to Freedom House, there are reports of intelligence agents even tapping hospital phone lines to eavesdrop on calls from Covid-19 patients and see if their family and friends admit they have virus symptoms themselves.