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Tech and Authoritarianism: Data Protection in the post-COVID World

May 17, 2020

Chinese authorities have had a notorious history of using facial recognition, location tracking for surveillance without due regard for laws or morality. The COVID -19 pandemic seems to have emboldened the authorities to conduct widescale surveillance under the guise of public security. They have rolled out Health Code, an app wherein people fill in their personal information, including their ID number, where they live, whether they have been with people carrying the virus, and their symptoms. The app then assigns them one of three colours: green means unrestricted movement, yellow means seven days of quarantine and red, the severest of them, means 14 of quarantine and no outside movement. The app also surreptitiously collects – and shares with the police – people’s location data.

 

The app has a wide range impact on the lives of its 700 million users as local authorities require people to show their colour code when they move outside for everyday chores, such as hailing a ride on the subway, going to the supermarket, and even to enter and exit some residential areas. The access control systems of some areas seem to use facial recognition technology. Any citizen can scan his/her face and the system would fetch his/her colour code from the servers and decide whether to grant entry.

 

Exactly on what criteria are the users being classified remains unclear. The Zhejiang provincial government has promulgated a set of standards for the Health Code app, outlining broad and ambiguous criteria for categorization. “Having been to affected areas recently” and “belonging to groups relevant to the epidemic” are two of seven criteria that can turn a user’s code red. Other local governments are authorized to establish rules for carrying out these criteria in their districts.

 

 

There have been reports of people getting notifications or messages from the police when they step out of their homes, warning them that they are under quarantine, seemingly suggesting a wide-scale location tracking effort by the authorities.

 

Russia tells a similar story. Moscow has a vast network of 178,000 cameras all around the city that enable facial recognition technology under a program called “Safe City”. COVID -19 has only accelerated the efforts of authorities to bring more surveillance cameras into the network. This Orwellian step is supposed to catch people breaking quarantine norms.

 

At the end of January, before Moscow had any confirmed cases of coronavirus, the city purchased the latest version of NTechLab’s facial recognition software. The company claims that it can correctly detect a face even when more than 40% of it is covered.

 

Authorities all over the world are using technology and algorithms to effectively contact trace suspected COVID patients and warn them, either by using apps, websites or through local law enforcement. However, this pandemic has left little regard for privacy rights in already authoritative countries.

 

Aarogya Setu, India's Contact Tracing App has been challenged for lack of transparent data policy. 

 

In a recent interview by Vice News, when pressed over the issue of mass surveillance, NTechLab’s co-founder Artyom Kukharenko said, “When the system becomes more transparent to the majority of city residents, this fear will go away”. Transparency, however, is not a thing that governments the likes of Russia and China seem to be fond of, especially in the area of law enforcement.

 

The main fear most activists have is what will happen to all these apparatus after the pandemic ends. Moscow authorities say their network of facial recognition cameras will be used to catch criminals. They say the program has already helped arrest over 300 people. But this leaves the door open to widespread surveillance of citizens fuelled by state-of-the-art deep learning algorithms. For regimes that operate without a free press or even an independent judicial system, the possibility of abuse by law enforcement agencies and tracking of citizens without court warrants or even supervision, increases drastically, especially for citizens it doesn’t like.

 

Given that countries like Russia have a notorious history of leaks and lax safeguards, journalists say that there is a growing fear that access to Moscow’s surveillance cameras — and their new facial recognition technology — can be sold on the black market. The network is scanning thousands of new faces everyday and adding them to its database. If such data could fall into the wrong hands, hackers could access sensitive data of millions of individuals.

 

China's social credit system has been compared to Black Mirror, and Russia’s crackdown on journalists and free speech is no surprise to anyone. Given how this pandemic has fueled the rise of technology to prevent infections, authorities are already finding the use of these “citizen help” systems to shift the world more into an Orwellian dystopia.

 

Views expressed are solely those of the author.

 

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About the Author

Akshat Jain is a student of Bachelors in Technology from Manipal University Jaipur. Originally from Delhi, he is an avid debater and has participated in numerous Model United Nations conferences all over the country. A West Wing fan, he likes reading and decoding social issues, and public policy. Previously, he has worked with the healthcare venture PeeSafe, in addition to The Kirat Youth Foundation, and Kairo Guard.

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