Foto: Bongkarn Thanyakij

Human rights and privacy in times of corona

By Barbara Oosters – Policy Lead civil society space 

Last week, the Dutch ministry announced that it is considering the use of smartphone applications to control the spread of covid-19. According to several surveys, up to 65 per cent of Dutch citizens are willing to install such an app, even if that means giving up their privacy and rights. Enchanted by the mantra: the end – beating corona – justifies the means. Meanwhile in Hungary, Prime Minister Orbán assigned himself extraordinary powers and announced prison sentences for those that spread corona-related 'fake news'.

The slippery slope

So what is potentially wrong with these measures? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

Yes, in times of a public health crisis some measures that clash with our basic freedoms, such as freedom of movement, might be unavoidable. However, it is paramount that when a government enters that pathway, they should do so in respect of international law. The response must be proportional, justified and time-bound.

This is exactly where the slippery slope starts.

The already infamous mobile apps to track corona have their origin in countries such as China, South Korea and Israel. In South Korea, contaminated people are tracked and an alarm rings when they leave their designated quarantine area. This information is publicly accessible, leading to mistrust and division in society. Infected people are 'marked' and their family members are looked down upon. In some states in India the local government extended the virtual with a physical label and started using indelible ink to mark infected people. In Israel it is the security service that has received the go ahead to use technology that is developed to target Palestinian 'militants'. It sidestepped the parliament to do so. The Chinese government installed CCTV cameras that are pointing at the apartment doors of those in quarantine. Mandatory apps are combined with facial recognition features and iris scans. Methods that China designed to control minority groups are now applied to control the entire population.

These examples show how entire populations serve as guinea-pigs in large scale surveillance experiments. The biggest problem is that this widespread experimenting happens in times in which respect for human rights is already eroding and space for critical watchdog organizations and activists shrinks rapidly and globally. A trend we are witnessing since some time. In this global context, a crisis like the one we are facing now, can be easily exploited to advance and impose policies these governments have long sought on otherwise reluctant people. 

Be careful what you wish for

Measures passed in times of crisis have the tendency to become permanent. We have most notably seen that in the US after 9/11. The USA Patriot Act gave the federal government broad surveillance powers. But the law, which was initially due to expire in 2005 is still in place as of today.

We are, around the globe, in danger of allowing our huge concern in the short-term about stopping the spread of the virus to blind us to the long-term danger of the acceptance of a big brother surveillance state or in some places a permanent autocracy.

Back to the Netherlands. Yes we do live in a democracy. Yes we do have a government that I would entrust my data with more than I would entrust it to the Chinese government. But, what happens if you do not want to use the 'corona-app'? Will you be a suspect? Can your employer oblige you to use the app? Can a shop owner refuse you access to his shop? How voluntarily will installing this app really be?

We all should be careful what we wish for in times of crisis. Instead of building a surveillance regime, we should rebuild people’s trust in science, in public authorities and in the media. Governments should ask themselves critically why millions of people belief that G5 is causing corona. This has everything to do with the more toxic crisis of trust in public institutions fueled by populist leaders for the past years in Europe and beyond. A crisis that will not be solved by installing an app. This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come. Let’s make the right choices and rebuild trust, not undermine trust and solidarity.


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