Will Privacy Be Another Casualty of the Pandemic?

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Facial Recognition

Illustration by Kal Omari via Flickr

The privacy debate surrounding the use of facial recognition has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak.

While countries like China and Russia have been quick to implement their facial recognition technology to monitor the spread of infections, little is known about how  surveillance and other high-tech tools are being used in the U.S.

In some cases, the technology can help police and first responders, who are particularly vulnerable, avoid direct exposure. 

But privacy advocates worry that as a result of panic over the disease, people will “turn a blind eye to its privacy risks,” in the interests of feeling safe, according to Threat Post.  

President Donald Trump was reported last month to have summoned a number of tech companies to the White House in order to discuss the possibility of implementing a program where mobile location data could be used for tracking citizens, Tech Crunch and The Washington Post reported.

When Trump also announced that Google was working on a nationwide coronavirus screening site, privacy advocates jumped in to note that it would require “users to sign in with a Google account, suggesting users’ health-related queries could be linked to other online activity,” Tech Crunch explained. 

Since February, China has put millions of citizens on lockdown, and sent doctors door-to-door for health checks and “even separating parents from young children who displayed symptoms of COVID-19, no matter how seemingly mild,” USA Today reports.

But China’s already intrusive surveillance technology, such as its use of facial recognition software to monitor residents of Xinjuiang province, is being applied in the service of combating the coronavirus.

Law enforcement drones have been reported hovering above the streets, with a speaker, so that a police officer in a department miles away could yell at people to “get inside” and shame them for not wearing face masks, according to USA Today.

“We couldn’t go outside under any circumstances. Not even if you have a pet,” Wang Jingjun, 27, a graduate student who returned to Wuhan from the Chinese coastal province of Guangdong, told USA Today reporters.

“Those with dogs had to play with them inside and teach them to use the bathroom in a certain spot.”

Chinese biometrics company Hanvon, whose customers include the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, recently updated its facial recognition technology so that it can identify citizens even when they are wearing medical face masks, Threat Post said.

“It can detect crime suspects, terrorists or make reports or warnings,” Hanvon Vice President Huang Lei told Reuters in an interview. “When wearing a mask, the recognition rate can reach about 95 percent, which can ensure that most people can be identified.”

Hanvon also integrated their facial recognition technology with temperature-reading sensors, so that law enforcement can see if someone has a fever–one of the main symptoms of COVID-19.

The temperature-reading sensors have also been installed in public transit and in the entrances of some public places, Reuters detailed.

This new technology is linked to a “mandatory phone app,” called The Alipay Health Code, which all smartphone users in China have to download. Each person is given an ID, which is color-coded like a stoplight based on their contagion risk. This effectively decides who is allowed to enter shopping malls, subways, cafes, and other public spaces, USA Today explains. 

A New York Times analysis in early March found that as soon as a user grants the app access to personal data, a piece of the program labeled “ReportInfoAndLocationToPolice” will store the person’s location, city name, and an identifying code number to a server. 

Chinese law enforcement may have the authority to access that data, considering they were integral in developing the system itself, The New York Times reports. 

While there have been some complaints on Chinese social media, “most people seem to be accepting extra intrusion, or even embracing it, as a means to deal with the health emergency,” CNBC reports. 

Russian Surveillance

Russian citizens are also under increased surveillance, in the name of stopping the virus.

In March, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin bragged that the city’s widespread facial-recognition network had helped in tracking down a Chinese woman who flew to the Russian capital from Beijing, The Moscow Times reported.  

She was deported to China. 

Also last month, a Russian citizen who was ordered to self-quarantine after returning from northern Italy in February told the Mediazona news website that law enforcement showed up at his apartment. He said the officers reprimanded him because, the day before, he “violated his quarantine by taking out the trash.” 

He believes he was being spied on by the CCTV cameras on his street, which the Russian authorities have already confirmed they will be watching citizens through the network during this pandemic, according to The Moscow Times.

See also: Washington Enacts Miscrosoft-Based Facial Recognition law

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for The Crime Report

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