The outbreak of COVID-19, or “coronavirus,” is a moment to assess how we can protect public health in the digital age, and where our digital rights fit into the global humanitarian response.
We often speak about digital security using terms from public health; “digital hygiene“ refers to small habits, like changing your password or remembering not to click on suspicious links, that not only help protect yourself, but also those around you.
The analogy has come full circle; as we explain below, strong digital rights help improve public health.
The internet allows us to alert the public to health threats faster than any previous communications platform or tool. We have learned how to track and prevent disease transmission, purchase medical supplies, and build community online in the midst of deprivation, fear, and isolation. We know that use of the internet will be critical in the race to save lives during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The internet is also increasingly integrated into our social and governance systems, and as such its use figures importantly in the outbreak, in ways both positive and negative. By attending to the key digital rights issues that we outline in this post, responders from the front lines to governments and international institutions can better understand the risks and find a more successful pathway to respond.
Health data is particularly sensitive information. It can identify individuals and reveal highly personal details of people’s lives. Tracking health data can be necessary for authorities to respond to a fast-moving outbreak. Collection and processing of health data, including the publication of information online, poses risks to the safety of affected persons and their communities. Health authorities should strictly adhere to a legal basis for these activities.
Recently, Singapore’s Ministry of Health made information about victims public, and a developer turned the information into an interactive map. The map went viral, sparking debate on whether its utility for public health had been balanced against the risks to the identified victims, who could face discrimination, stigmatization, and more. The mismanagement or even illegal sharing of data during previous disease outbreaks has been well documented. Law, not ethics, should govern the processing of health data. We must demand more from authorities as the role of big data and technology in humanitarian response matures.
Governments around the world may see this health crisis as an opportunity to introduce or implement controversial technology and systems for surveillance. As Access Now’s Raman Jit Singh told Thomson Reuters, “Governments are legitimizing tools of oppression as tools of public health.”
Facial recognition technology is already playing a role in the surveillance, monitoring, and control of people’s movements in the COVID-19 outbreak. China is using it to track infected individuals and identify those not wearing masks. In Moscow, Russian authorities are reportedly using surveillance cameras, facial recognition systems, and geolocation to enforce its quarantine regime and track infected individuals and their family members.
Authorities should not use the epidemic to justify mass surveillance and further encroachment on their citizens’ right to privacy.
Even before this outbreak, governments have been integrating health and other biometric data into digital identity programs. A public health crisis could enable the swift passage of regulations for identification without public debate or transparency, accelerating the alarming trend of identifying individuals across public and private life.
In China, tech giants swiftly developed health-rating apps in collaboration with authorities in several provinces, despite warnings against the disproportionate collection and retention of personal data. Little is known about who has access to the personal data that has been retained, how the health rating mechanism works, and to what degree this record may be integrated into a citizen’s permanent identity profile.
This sets a dangerous precedent for the development of digital identity programs around the world. As part of the #WhyID coalition, we repeat our call on governments and the private sector to consider the potential human rights harms before creating digital ID programs.
Authorities in several countries have moved first to censor information about COVID-19 rather than allow scientists to publicize and debate the extent or severity of the outbreak.
According to a new report by Citizen Lab, from the very beginning of the outbreak, Chinese authorities have blocked coronavirus-related content on social media and the messaging service WeChat. The Iranian government has censored and persecuted journalists and others trying to report on the epidemic. The United States placed an information gatekeeper, Vice President Mike Pence, in strict control of public messaging.
Censorship not only violates individuals’ right to free speech and access to information, but endangers us all by limiting our ability to protect ourselves from the disease and prevent it from spreading further.
As multiple observers have noted, misinformation and disinformation about coronavirus is spreading quickly. False information about treatments, conspiracy theories, and hoaxes have been proliferating on social media, in news reporting, and on messaging platforms, such as WhatsApp.
In response, social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google, have started promoting official guidance from health authorities when users search for information on coronavirus. Reddit funneled users toward a new, well-moderated forum. The World Health Organization has also started a TikTok channel to fight misinformation and provide reliable and timely advice to the public.
We support these efforts to respond to false information by prioritizing, amplifying, and increasing access to accurate information.
Acts of xenophobia and discrimination against persons of Asian descent or individuals who appear to be Asian are on the rise, online and off. Insults, xenophobic memes, and news reports featuring images of Asian individuals and neighborhoods are propagating, and as a result, Asians face violence and stigmatization on the streets, in their workplaces, and even in hospitals. Asian businesses, already struggling since the COVID-19 outbreak, have also been negatively impacted.
As human rights advocates, we underscore that those responding to this crisis must fight the virus, not the people.
Organizing and convening
One of the most important tools for civil society to respond to the issues we have highlighted is through in-person convenings. They can provide an opportunity to engage directly with companies and governments and push for practices that protect human rights and save lives.
At this time, the organizers of many civil society-led events, like the Internet Freedom Festival and the International Journalism Festival, have cancelled to protect the health and safety of their participants. We are currently in a process of decision-making with regard to RightsCon, our annual summit, and anticipate a final decision on the path forward by the end of March.
An important consideration is that without these spaces for gathering, civil society coordination becomes more difficult, and fundraising opportunities may be lost. In many cases, civil society must depend on outside funding to attend important meetings, or have to get government approval to participate in an official meeting on an issue that directly impacts their well being. In our work, many of us resort to “side events” to ensure that our communities are heard.
Institutions like the U.N. Human Rights Council or the Commission on the Status of Women sometimes cancel side events but carry on with the main meeting without the full participation or input of those impacted by the decisions that are being made. Without the relevant voices in the room, it may be necessary to reschedule an event instead of proceeding without the meaningful engagement that is necessary for legitimacy.
Protecting our community moving forward
Like many of you, we at Access Now will continue to monitor the situation and help draw attention to digital rights issues as a way to improve the global humanitarian response. As always, if your organization needs help with strengthening digital security, we encourage you to reach out to our Digital Security Helpline for support. Stay tuned and follow our social media feed for updates.
Bruna Martins dos Santos contributed to this report.