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Apps could be key to giving citizens their freedom back, but should not be used as a way to constrain that liberty in other ways, activists warn

Phone apps and other technology are proving to be a key way for countries to come out of coronavirus lockdown – but also pose privacy and civil rights threats that could linger long after the crisis has passed, experts have warned.

Such technology has already proved central to responses to the threat from coronavirus. Almost as soon as the alarm was sounded, authorities turned to technology, initially using it to begin contact tracing, working out who had been within reach of an infected person and how the disease may have spread.

In the future, as restrictions lift and lockdowns come to an end, the use of technology may mean downloading an app that will coordinate the response and should help stem the spread of coronavirus even as people go back out into society. Suggestions have included everything from virtual immunity passports to allow people to go outside and anonymous trackers that would alert a person if they had been within the presence of another person who may have been infected with coronavirus, to more authoritarian solutions like apps that could chastise or even report their users if their location data shows them spending too much time outside.

The visions proposed by technologists for countries like the UK – and already adopted in some form by other places – is that in the months to come, as lockdown lifts, our movements and networks could be governed by technology. Citizens will move back to something like normality, the hope is, but may sometimes be buzzed to say that their phone has been in contact with another phone that belongs to an anonymous person suspected to have Covid-19 – and that they should stay indoors.

Such solutions will require access to people’s most personal data – their location, their health history, and that of their friends – if it is to be successful. The world could face a profound trade-off between the privacy of that data and the speed with which they are able to go back to normal and be forced to choose between the efficacy of such technology and the protection of the information it relies on.

As Covid-19 became more prevalent, and the nature of the pandemic changed, so did the nature of the data and technology that is likely to prove most useful to authorities. Instead of individual interactions, the focus has moved instead to patterns in the population, such as the tracking and enforcement of social distancing measures that attempt to slow the spread of the disease.

But perhaps the most lasting effects will come in the later phases, which are still some time away in the UK but can be previewed in other countries across the world. There, contact tracing once again comes into play – as authorities attempt to stem the spread of the disease in the world once more – and to enforce the more long-term rules as citizens emerge from lockdown.

It is during that time that technology could prove central in allowing people to leave their houses, by allowing authorities to track people’s movements and enforce any restrictions that are required to let them leave lockdown safely. Such technology has already been hailed as part of the reason for the success of countries like South Korea in leaving lockdown quickly and with relatively little reinfection.

In China, for instance, leaving the house after weeks of lockdown is reliant on having the right app with the right information. The apps display specific codes – red, yellow or green – and only those with the right colour are able to enter restaurants, get on public transport or move between different places.

But leaving lockdown could also be the time when those surveillance plans are extended into the future, leading human rights groups to warn that it could lead to a power grab from governments that could leave the world with more surveillance and less privacy than before. The solution relied on by countries with questionable human rights records, from China to Turkey, has allowed people some measure of freedom from lockdown – but has also prompted fears about the kinds of data that it is gathering about its users.

“The wave of surveillance we’re seeing is truly unprecedented, even surpassing how governments across the world responded to 9/11,” said Edin Omanovic, advocacy director of Privacy International.

The laws, powers, and technologies being deployed around the world pose a grave and long-term threat to human freedom. Some measures are based on public health measures with significant protections, while others amount to little more than opportunistic power grabs.”

Privacy International also noted that the ongoing disputes about surveillance and security have stemmed the ability of governments to introduce such measures. If officials had paid more attention to questions of legality and privacy before the crisis, citizens would be more likely to have confidence in how the measures would be deployed.

Its researchers have also argued that any abuse of power during this time could actually lead to problems in fighting the virus. “For people to lose faith in the government and health authorities at this time, through being subjected to intrusive and unnecessary surveillance, will only serve to damage efforts to fight this virus,” senior researcher Tom Fisher told the BBC, after Russia rolled out an app that took access to user’s location, camera, phone storage and more to track them and ensure they didn’t leave their house if they were possibly infected with the virus.

In the UK, the question of how exactly to deploy those measures ahead of any possibility of lockdown is still being asked, and politicians have been keen to stress that both the timing and the nature of any loosening of lockdown is still unclear. But what is certain is that authorities will rely on technological solutions to safely navigate the ending of lockdown, as the rest of the world has.

One proposed solution, which has already gone into effect in countries ranging from Russia to China in different forms, is to use phones to register people who may have Covid-19, and then watch for who they are in contact with. If a phone’s Bluetooth connection registers another device that belongs to someone who has the disease, for instance, then it would alert them that they should stay indoors. (The phone would wait a short while and not show any identifying information about the person, preserving the anonymity of the infected person.)

The hope is that all of solutions created by companies across the world could eventually be integrated together, allowing the data to be shared so that citizens can more easily move across borders.

NHSX – the new part of the heart service tasked with developing and integrating new technology into the NHS – has confirmed that it is exploring such an app, though no details and has not indicated whether it could be interoperable with other countries’ solutions. “NHSX is looking at whether app-based solutions might be helpful in tracking and managing coronavirus, and we have assembled expertise from inside and outside the organisation to do this as rapidly as possible,” a spokesperson said.

Though NHSX has denied that it is developing an app that could be used for enforcement, a run of stories have led to fears that it could be used for more invasive strategies. In late March, a vast host of privacy researchers, technologists and ethicists signed an open letter that voiced concern that the NHS may cut ethical corners and was being insufficiently transparent about its work.

“These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies,” the letter concluded. “Ethical data-driven decision-making requires good governance, transparency and willingness to course correct.”

The same researchers also worried that the new surveillance tools could be combined with other increased powers for immigration officers and police that are part of the emergency Coronavirus Act. That gives authorities the ability to detain people if they have reasonable grounds to suspect they are infectious – which they warned could be combined with existing “far-reaching data-gathering powers” as a “means of social control”.

While much of the discussion of solutions to the coronavirus crisis and exiting lockdown have focused on voluntary measures such as apps, it might be possible for governments to track their citizens without their consent or even their knowledge. Telecoms networks, phone companies and tech services all gather a variety of personal data such as people’s location, and that could easily be gathered and passed on to governments for tracking or even enforcement.

Rumours have also suggested that both NSO and Palantir, for instance, have been pitching for business with the NHS. Both are private companies that have been criticised for their work on private surveillance, and the very suggestion that they could be involved in the NHS’s plans led to denunciations from the Open Rights Group and others.

In response, privacy groups have called for protections that will allow the public to trust that the technological responses to the crisis are not also used to undermine their civil rights.

“This extraordinary crisis requires extraordinary measures, but it also demands extraordinary protections,” said Mr Omanovic from Privacy International. “It would be incredibly short-sighted to allow efforts to save lives to instead destroy our societies.

“Even now, governments can choose to deploy measures in ways that are lawful, build public trust, and respect people’s wellbeing. Now more than ever, governments must choose to protect their citizens’ rather than their own tools of control.”

Last week, groups from across civil society and around the world called on governments to ensure that any technological solutions to the coronavirus pandemic must meet a range of different conditions.

They included a commitment that surveillance measures were lawful and necessary, that they must be limited only to the ongoing pandemic, and that people’s data is protected from abuse. The joint statement also asked governments to ensure they address the risk that using technologies like big data and artificial intelligence could lead to discrimination and other abuses against marginalised populations such as racial minorities and those living in poverty.

More than 100 human rights groups signed the letter, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a range of journalism groups.

“Technology can play an important role in the global effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this does not give governments carte blanche to expand digital surveillance,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty Tech.

“The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers. We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state.

“Increased digital surveillance to tackle this public health emergency can only be used if certain strict conditions are met. Authorities cannot simply disregard the right to privacy and must ensure any new measures have robust human rights safeguards.

“Wherever governments use the power of technology as part of their strategy to beat Covid-19, they must do so in a way that respects human rights.”

In the UK, the government has the questionable advantage of being able to look to other countries and their approaches. They can serve as an example of the kind of technologies that could prove useful – but also the dangers that might be inherent in relying on them to keep people safe.

Singapore, for instance, had previously been hailed as a shining success in coming out of lockdown. Strict rules for surveillance and quarantine helped contain the disease when it first spread from China in January, and the lockdowns appeared to have worked so well that in recent weeks people have been allowed back out of their houses and into something more closely resembling normal life.

One of the central reasons for that success was the country’s contact-tracing app, known as TraceTogether. It kept privacy concerns at bay with a host of different measures, including keeping any data encrypted, restraining what data the app could access from a users’ phone, and largely keeping information secured with users rather than sending it to the government.

But after Singapore continued to relax its lockdown this week infections surged once again, in a stark reminder of the degree to which coronavirus appears to be easier to contain than it is to eradicate.

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