COVID-19: Use of digital surveillance technologies must be human rights compliant

Today, the ICJ joined more than 100 other organizations to urge States to ensure that any use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations as part of measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic is fully human rights compliant.

The organizations warned that efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to impose greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance that are likely to be abused, unless adequate safeguards are put in place to protect freedom of expression, the right to privacy and other rights.

Technology can and should play an important role in the midst of the current crisis to protect the rights to health, life and security.

Deploying non-consensual State digital surveillance powers however can risk violations of the rights to privacy, freedom of expression, information and association. If implemented in an arbitrary or discriminatory way, and without adequate oversight, these measures risk damaging public trust in state authorities and undermining the effectiveness of any public health response. Non-consensual digital surveillance measures may also disproportionately exacerbate discrimination against already marginalized communities.

The organizations called on all governments to ensure that increased digital surveillance measures meet the following conditions:

  1. Surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. Governments must be transparent about the measures they are taking so that they can be scrutinized and, if appropriate, later modified, retracted, or overturned.
  2. Expansion of monitoring or surveillance measures must be time-bound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current pandemic.
  3. States must ensure that increased collection, retention, and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collected, retained, and aggregated to respond to the pandemic must be limited in scope, time-bound in relation to the pandemic and must not be used for commercial or any other purposes.
  4. Governments must take every effort to protect people’s data, including ensuring sufficient security of any personal data collected and of any devices, applications, networks, or services involved in collection, transmission, processing, and storage. Any claims that data is anonymous must be based on evidence and supported with sufficient information regarding how it has been anonymized.
  5. Any use of digital surveillance technologies in responding to COVID-19, including big data and artificial intelligence systems, must address the risk that these tools will facilitate discrimination and other rights abuses against racial minorities, people living in poverty, and other marginalized populations, whose needs and lived realities may be obscured or misrepresented in large datasets.
  6. If governments enter into data sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities, they must be based on law, and the existence of these agreements and information necessary to assess their impact on privacy and human rights must be publicly disclosed – in writing, with sunset clauses, public oversight and other safeguards by default. Businesses involved in efforts by governments to tackle COVID-19 must undertake due diligence to ensure they respect human rights, and ensure any intervention is firewalled from other business and commercial interests.
  7. Any response must incorporate accountability protections and safeguards against abuse. Increased surveillance efforts related to COVID-19 should not fall under the domain of security or intelligence agencies and must be subject to effective oversight by appropriate independent bodies. Individuals must be given the opportunity to know about and challenge any COVID-19 related measures to collect, aggregate, and retain, and use data.
  8. COVID-19 related responses that include data collection efforts should include means for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular experts in the public health sector and marginalized population groups.

Link to joint statement here.

See also

ICJ, ‘Southeast Asia: States must respect and protect rights in combating misinformation online relating to COVID-19’, 1 April 2020

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