MENA: amid COVID-19 fear and chaos, don’t be a privacy offender!

This post is also available in Arabic.

As the coronavirus spreads along with misinformation and fear, many internet users in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) are disclosing other people’s personal data on social media. Official lists of COVID-19 patients, including their names and addresses, personal IDs, and copies of their passports, have landed in numerous Facebook groups and are being circulated via WhatsApp and other platforms on the pretext of preventing onward transmission of the virus. In some cases, the goal is to shame people into adhering to government lockdown and quarantine orders. 

In doing so, internet users can put themselves and others at grave risk. At the same time, several governments in the region are deploying tracking and monitoring apps and facial recognition surveillance in response to COVID19 which further risks undermining people’s right privacy and data protection.

Patients’ names and addresses go viral 

At the beginning of a lockdown in mid-March in Jordan, internet users shared widely on social media the name and passport photo of a Jordanian citizen who violated mandatory self-quarantine after he came back from travels. As this type of privacy violation kept happening, the Jordanian Armed Forces announced that the army will track down and stop people who violate patients’ privacy by sharing their information online.

Also in March in Morocco, social media users posted and shared a list of names of passengers who arrived in the country on the same flight as an individual who presented symptoms of COVID-19. The list went viral and was widely circulated on platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook. To make matters worse, the list came with a warning not to make contact with the people identified on the list, and was shared without verifying the accuracy of the information. In many other countries, those suspected of being COVID-19 patients have faced discrimination, online and off, and received multiple death threats, putting their safety at risk.

After civil society organizations and others raised concerns, the public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation of the incident. This led to a court order determining that sharing the list could “constitute a criminal offense because of the disclosure of professional secrecy, defamation, and violation of personal data.”

LGBTQ+ community members are outed

A social media influencer in Morocco recently encouraged her Instagram followers to use dating apps like Grindr and PlanetRomeo to find out which men in their families and communities are gay. “Since everyone is together at home, it could show you your husband in your bedroom, it could show you your son who might be in the bathroom,” she said in an Instagram Live video.

Following outcry by LGBTQ+ activists, Instagram suspended the influencer’s account. The exposure of private details of members of the gay community can have extremely serious consequences. Some gay men in Morocco now fear for their lives, as being outed could mean they will be kicked out of their homes in the midst of the pandemic. One of the victims, for example, is a 23-year-old gay university student whose sexual orientation was revealed on social media platforms, leading to discovery by his brother and ejection from his home.  “I have been sleeping on the street for three days, and I have nowhere to go. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, not even my close friends are able to host me,” he told Human Rights Watch. He remains in fear for his life.

Violating people’s privacy puts their lives at risk

The use of data by health officials has a critical role to play in containing the spread of the virus, but data should not be used in a way that puts people’s lives at risk. In exceptional circumstances such as a public health crisis, it is vital that we safeguard human rights, including the rights to privacy and data protection, and these safeguards are especially important for people in at-risk groups and communities, such as LGBTQ+ people. COVID19 patients have expressed the suffering and psychological harm it has caused them to be identified and publicly shamed on social media platforms. Posting private information online increases the risk that people will be surveilled or discriminated against, and this can even lead to death threats. Since any one of us could become a victim of these violations of privacy, we are all vulnerable to these risks.

Here’s how to protect privacy and keep your community safe

When you share content on social media or messaging apps, you are not only risking giving up part of your privacy, you can risk the privacy of other people, even inadvertently. It is especially troubling if you fall into the habit of sharing information without checking to see whether it is accurate, and without the explicit consent of others. During the COVID-19 crisis, we should all be aware of the nature of the information we are sharing, and understand how to protect ours and other people’s privacy by reflecting on our behavior online.

Below, we share some general tips to help you gain awareness and strengthen your privacy and security when you use social media platforms. If you find yourself at risk or believe your privacy has been compromised, you can reach out to our Digital Security Helpline by contacting [email protected]. Our helpline provides 24/7 real-time, direct technical assistance and digital security support to civil society groups and activists, media organizations, journalists and bloggers, and human rights defenders.

1-Check accuracy and control what you post on social media

Before sharing any information, make sure to check the validity of the sources you use to build your knowledge on COVID-19. Personal information, particularly health-related personal data, is inherently sensitive in nature because of the harmful way(s) in which it might be used. Accordingly, you should not be sharing this information on public pages or among your network on social media platforms. Instead, always refer to the official sources of your Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization. 


2- Review the privacy settings of your social media accounts

If you are worried about what information you are sharing on social media and with whom, consider following the privacy checkups on Facebook or Google, or reviewing Instagram’s privacy settings or Twitter’s privacy configurations. 


3- Be mindful of risks online!

In these difficult times, digital technologies are becoming more useful than ever in keeping us informed and connected. Unfortunately, malicious actors are also using the increased reliance on digital platforms to conduct attacks online. It is always important to think about our safety online, and resources like the Citizen Lab’s Security Planner, Security-in-a-box, and the EFF’s surveillance self defense guides can help you start adopting new security practices.  

For more resources on this, you can also visit “The Digital First Aid Kit.”