Surveillance While the Coronavirus Pandemic is Raging

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How is the coronavirus pandemic changing the way governments track their citizens? IDI expert takes a look around the world to see what policies countries are implementing.


Do you remember when we used to talk about the surveillance economy? About the internet giants that know everything about us and exploit the information for their profit? About the use of mammoth databases to create “autonomy traps”? Suddenly that seems so long ago. Then the war against the coronavirus emerged from out of nowhere and turned everything upside down.

However, this is not exactly the case. The pandemic caught us at an amazing historical moment with regard to technology. We live in the age of extensive surveillance networks and the tracking of our whereabouts by means of cellphone data, analysis and cross-checking of databases—location, age, medical history, departures from and returns to the country—and even facial recognition based on artificial intelligence. When it is a matter of saving lives, it is logical and even essential to make use of all available technology. The question, as always, is one of scope. What is being collected, how is the tracking implemented, and who keeps tabs on the process?

Various countries have stepped up their use of surveillance and databases. We are still somewhere in the middle of the process and as of the present writing, it remains unclear what major countries like the United States and Great Britain will do. But we can say that the position on the use of technology to track citizens is a cultural and political issue.

In some countries, like South Korea, the position is purely objective: If it is possible to use cellphone location data in order to identify coronavirus carriers, to order them to enter quarantine, and to allow the healthcare system to prepare for the next outbreak, it is imperative to do so. If it is possible to take cellphone location data and cross-check it against age, name, medical history, and foreign-travel databases, in order to identify “super-spreaders” who have been in the company of a large number of people—let’s do it!

There are countries in which the reliance on this technology is part of the preparation for the commissions of inquiry that will be established in the future, or for impending elections; or even part of their need to tell themselves that they are doing something, and that the more they restrict individual rights and intensify the drama, the calmer the public will be, believing they are protected. There are signs of this in the United States.

Finally, for some countries, like China and Russia, this is a golden opportunity to amplify the state’s coercive power over its citizens and exploit the technology to identify, track, discover—and also to intimidate. When the pandemic winds down, we may assume that they will fill the vacuum with some other need, such as an acute economic crisis, and continue the surveillance. In short order, their citizens will forget that these tracking methods were not always around. 

Here in Israel, in addition to the added element of enlisting the intelligence agencies, the technology that the General Security Service is developing to combat terrorism, which we have been investing in for years, has produced extraordinary surveillance systems. Why not make use of them now? This thought spawned the emergency regulations that the Government issued in the middle of the night, authorizing the Israel Security Authority (ISA) to engage in mass tracking of the entire population, in a way unknown in Israel till now. The regulations led to a petition to the High Court of Justice, and the decision to permit such surveillance, at last temporarily.

The Surveillance Scale

If we look at the countries that have activated surveillance technologies thus far, we can construct a scale. At one end, of course, is China; at the other end are European countries like Italy and Spain. All the rest are somewhere in between. The troubling question is where Israel falls on this spectrum.

In China, COVID-19 patients were tracked by means of the surveillance mechanisms employed in routine times. Even before the pandemic, the cellphone companies passed their subscribers’ location data to the authorities; street cameras, assisted by artificial intelligence, are used to identify passers-by, even if they are wearing a mask, and to estimate their body temperature. This should not astonish us. The close link between the e-commerce giant Alibaba and the central government led to an application produced by Alibaba that all citizens are required to install on their cellphones. The app makes it possible to generate the “health status” of every citizen, based on an algorithm that takes into account the identity of persons they have been in contact with, the places they have visited, and any symptoms they display. This health status is then used to determine who is permitted to go out to the streets, and who is required to stay at home.

Yes, China is China, and China should not set an example for Israel. Israel is a democracy, after all, and even when it battles against other life-threatening events, such as terrorist attacks, Israelis are proud that they do so with one hand tied behind their back. 

At the other extreme of the surveillance scale is the European Union, which is bound by the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) even in emergencies, as well as by the directives on electronic privacy, stipulating that cellular geolocation data cannot be collected without the consent of those tracked, or must be anonymized, meaning that the authorities cannot link specific individuals to their location data. It is likely that these EU regulations are the reason that the quarantine and isolation regulations that Italy imposed in recent weeks, are based only on information reported by worried neighbors and police patrols. It is true that as of March 18, 2020, more than 40,000 Italians had been fined for violating the quarantine regulations, but we cannot avoid the conclusion that this laxity was one of the factors behind the horrifying level of contagion in that country. Even now that the scope of the disaster is clear, the Italian cellphone providers (Telecom Italia, Vodafone, WindTre) are providing only anonymous and statistical location data to the authorities—information that can be used to hone in on public gatherings but not on individuals. In Germany, too, the legislation on epidemics permits the collection and processing of individual data only as allowed by the GDPR. The Germany privacy commission made it clear that it is problematic for the authorities to access the cellphone location data of individual virus carriers or quarantined persons. Hence, Deutsche Telekom is forwarding only anonymous and aggregate location data, and there is no tracking of persons who have been identified by means of their cellular location data.

It is hard to maintain our equanimity in the face of these self-imposed restrictions, which in countries with a tradition of flouting government instructions, like Italy, have made a direct contribution to the ongoing catastrophe. It is possible that in Germany, whose citizens are more disciplined, there is greater compliance with quarantine orders—but only time will tell. In any case, we must candidly acknowledge that we in Israel are more like the Italians than the Germans when it comes to following orders, so we should not learn anything from the German experience.

Instead, we should consider two other countries located somewhere in the middle of the surveillance scale—Taiwan and South Korea. Even though we often see them as distant Asian countries, in which a culture of rigid obedience prevails, they have demonstrated a much more impressive ability to balance the coronavirus threat against restrictions on civil rights and surveillance. 

Taiwan is a young democracy, with recent experience in dealing with epidemics, notably the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the swine flu epidemic in 2009. Precisely for this reason the country enacted comprehensive legislation to deal with major public health crises. By way of comparison, the Israeli law with regard to epidemics—the Public Health Ordinance—was enacted by the Mandatory government 80 years ago, in 1940. More recent laws, such as those establishing the National Emergency Authority and the Basic Law: The Government, do not mention epidemics, but only terrorism, war, and earthquakes. Why? That’s a good question.

In Taiwan, the law allows the health authorities to conduct epidemiological investigations and interrogate individuals as to where they were and what they did. It also prescribes sanctions for these who prevaricate. When the coronavirus epidemic erupted, the border-control and health agencies merged their databases, so that the government could identify persons at high risk of infection and ramp up the isolation instructions. Those who were required to go into quarantine are subject to cellular geolocation. But only the health authorities receive this information, and no one else. Not the police and certainly not the security services. Furthermore, , from the outset- the government took pains to be as transparent as possible, in order to reassure the public that this is Taiwan, not China, and that the people’s struggle to become a democracy was not in vain..

In South Korea, where the situation is similar to that in Taiwan, the law allows people to refuse to submit to an epidemiological investigation, but they can be punished if the refusal turns out to be unjustified. In parallel, the authorities are bound by a strict obligation of confidentiality with regard to the information collected, backed by heavy fines and prison terms. In Korea, too, a “smart quarantine system” gathers information about people entering the country, and there is extensive tracking of confirmed COVID-19 patients. The South Koreans cross-check the data on carriers’ movements and on all those who may have been near them, based on cellphone location data supplied by the cellular providers, credit-card companies, surveillance cameras on the streets, satellites, and data from the border control agency and the airlines.

In Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, those sent into isolation are tracked by means of an app that those who enter quarantine may download voluntarily. 

Technology, Transparency, and Oversight 

The arrangements for coping with the coronavirus crisis in South Korea and Taiwan are similar to what we are doing here in Israel, but—somewhat surprisingly—it turns out that the job can be accomplished by having the cellular providers pass on their information directly to the health authorities, without the involvement of the intelligence agencies. Here, Israel has taken a giant stride beyond other democracies. Yes, there is no need to adhere to the sacred innocence of Europe; but on the overall scale- we have moved too close to China.

Safeguarding privacy, even during a state of emergency, is not bleeding-heart wailing that objects to saving lives, but forethought about the day after the pandemic. Even if the use of extensive surveillance technology is justified and essential for now, it must be accompanied by appropriate oversight and transparency vis-à-vis citizens. This transparency must include adequate explanations of what information is being collected, for what purpose, and when it will be expunged. The oversight must be effective, and must make it possible to verify adherence to the conditions set for the collection, processing, and use of the data. The strict insistence on transparency in Taiwan and South Korea was crucial for the creation of the public trust that is essential when such drastic steps are taken. Here, all details about the General Security Service— from regulations to directives to reports—are a deep dark secret and there is no transparency whatsoever. Even the oversight of the ISA—by Knesset committees and by the courts—is minimal. This is not the way to win public trust during an emergency. 

A virus like the one that is plaguing us today is not just a matter of epidemiology. It interacts with human behavior, with social institutions, with a culture of obedience, and a history of confidence in the government. This combination enhances our willingness to believe in and trust the authorities and to make individual sacrifices on behalf of the public welfare. This is also at the core of the debate that pits privacy against the need for individual digital surveillance.

History will record whether the drastic steps that Israel is taking today were essential, or perhaps expressed a tendency to overdramatize and excessive reliance on the security services. What is clear is that the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps more than previous incidents that raised issues of privacy, such as Cambridge Analytica, reflects what we know and would rather repress: the potential power of surveillance and the fear of collaboration between private corporations and the state, which can lead to a situation in which all our actions and movements are exposed. In particular, the privacy paradox that dominates our lives: on the one hand, we care deeply about our privacy; on the other hand, we have surrendered it so readily. The coronavirus may well be the turning point, when we finally lose our innocence about privacy.