COVID-19 Surveillance Must Not Be Used as an Excuse to Entrench Surveillance

The global outbreak of COVID-19 is leading many States to use emergency powers to attempt to tackle the crisis, limit the virus’ transmission, and protect the public. While the pandemic requires strong responses, we need to ensure that States do not normalize oppressive surveillance and undermine human rights more widely, including the right to freedom of expression and information and the right to privacy.

The World Health Organization’s characterization of COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11 triggered the declaration of a state of emergency in many countries, opening the door for governments to exercise extraordinary powers. Many States’ interventions, ostensibly to control the spread of the virus, have and will continue to have an enormous impact on people’s human rights. Quarantines inevitably limit people’s freedom of movement and freedom of assembly. But some governments are also deploying apps and other technological tools to surveil people’s movement, and their contacts with others, in order to be able to reconstruct, and block, transmission chains.