World risks permanent surveillance with coronavirus controls

More than 100 civil society groups urged governments Thursday not to use the global coronavirus pandemic as cover for future pervasive electronic snooping but instead make sure data is erased once the health crisis is over.  

Hasty initiatives to access mobile phones to trace population interactions and especially infected persons “threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association,” warned Privacy International and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“Dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat,” UN Special Rapporteur Joseph Cannataci said. “That is why it is important to be vigilant today and not give away all our freedoms.”

“We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now,” cautioned Rasha Abdul Rahim, deputy director of Amnesty International’s tech division.

HRW said — just weeks into the pandemic — 14 nations were using applications to trace carriers of the SARS-CoV-2 virus or enforce quarantines. And some 24 countries already used telecommunications for location tracking.

  • A family wears masks while walking in the street on January 22, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. (Getty Images/Stringer)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Better than nothing

    It has not been proven that the face masks seen above can effectively protect you against viral infections. That said, these masks are probably able to catch some germs before they reach your mouth or nose. More importantly, they prevent people from touching their mouth or nose (which most people do instinctually). If you are already sick, such masks may keep you from infecting others.

  • A hospital worker using alcohol based hand disinfectant (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Disinfect your hands

    One of the best ways to protect yourself from the virus is to frequently clean your hands, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of recommendations. The WHO recommends alcohol-based hand rub, like the ones seen here in a hospital.

  • Hände waschen (picture alliance/dpa/C. Klose)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Soap and water will do as well

    The simpler day-to-day solution is to use water and soap, if you’ve got some handy. But make sure to wash your hands thoroughly. Health authorities in the US recommend washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, making sure to pay attention to areas like your fingertips, thumbs and underneath your nails.

  • Husten Niesen Arm Keime (Fotolia/Brenda Carson)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Coughing and sneezing – but doing it right!

    So here’s what the doctors recommend: When coughing and sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with your flexed elbow. Or use tissue — but then immediately throw that tissue away and wash your hands. With your shirt or sweater, however, no, you don’t need to throw them away. Do wash them frequently, though, or take them to the dry cleaner’s.

  • Symbolbild Husten (picture alliance/empics)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Stay away!

    Another recommendation that may not work for everybody: Avoid close contact with anyone who has fever and cough! If you have to tend to sick people, make doubly sure to take additional protective measures.

  • Kazakh sanitary-epidemiological service worker uses a thermal scanner to detect travellers from China who may have symptoms possibly connected with the previously unknown coronavirus, at Almaty International Airport, Kazakhstan January 21, 2020. REUTERS/Pavel Mikheyev

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Got a fever? Go to the doctor, not on a trip!

    If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early. Avoid public places so you don’t infect others. And also, explain to your doctor where you’ve previously traveled and who you may have come in contact with.

  • Hühnchen Markt in Kabul (DW)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Avoid contact!

    When visiting live markets in areas currently experiencing cases of the novel coronavirus, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals. That includes any surfaces that are in contact with animals as well.

  • A meat-market in China (picture-alliance/Ch. Mohr)

    How to protect yourself against the coronavirus

    Well done — not rare!

    Cook meat thoroughly. The consumption of raw, or undercooked, animal products should be avoided. Raw meat, milk or animal organs should be handled with care to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods. These are good food safety practices and help prevent the spread of illnesses.

    Author: Fabian Schmidt

Privacy concerns

China’s blanket “health code” tracing in Wuhan, the city where the virus is said to have been first passed on to humans, has parallels in South Korea — where maps emerged tracing patients — and Singapore.

Voluntary usage has been encouraged in other nations such as Austria, where an app called “Stopp Corona” has been downloaded 130,000 times.

Users are told they will be notified if later one of their contacts contracts the virus. Austria’s Justice Minister Alma Zadic dismissed privacy concerns, saying she would download the app herself.

In Israel, 1.5 million people have downloaded “HaMagen,” an app that alerts users if they have crossed paths with a coronavirus patient. “We need to make sure all Israelis have the app,” said Morris Dortman, deputy director general of Israel’s Health Ministry.

Read more: Will Germans trade privacy for coronavirus protection?

Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in surveillance-ridden communist East Germany, said Wednesday she was “willing” to submit to tracing if a prototype system proved helpful.

After a public outcry over a plan to ask mobile phone operators to hand over data of 46 million customers, Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn and Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht are examining another plan for a “voluntary” system.

It was developed by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz (HHI) telecommunications institute in collaboration with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the country’s public health agency. Tests were carried out in Berlin on Wednesday.

Germany’s federal data protection commissioner, Ulrich Kelber, said collection could only take place with citizen consent, with data stored only for a limited term. Virtually uninterrupted surveillance as in China would be impossible, he asserted.

ipj/sri (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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