World risks sleepwalking into a surveillance state

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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.

Without appropriate safeguards in place, surveillance tools being used to track coronavirus cases could pose a lasting threat to people’s rights, leading civil rights organizations have warned in a statement.

According to a Reuters report, more than 100 groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Privacy International said that digital surveillance deployed to fight the coronavirus outbreak should be limited in time and extent, and they warned governments not to use the crisis as cover for ongoing snooping.

Governments are turning to technology from facial recognition to phone tracking to trace infections and keep tabs on the population as they enforce lockdowns, curfews and quarantines.

“An increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association,” the groups cautioned.

More than 935,000 people have been infected with coronavirus and some 47,000 have died since December, according to a Reuters count, leading government to impose lockdowns, travel bans and tighter border controls – often with heightened surveillance.

“Governments risk compounding the harms of this outbreak by running roughshod over our privacy and dignity,” Peter Micek, general counsel at digital rights group Access Now said in a statement.

Some 24 countries were using telecommunications for location tracking and 14 were using applications for contact tracing or quarantine enforcement, according to HRW.

China has introduced a traffic-light system that uses smartphone software to rate individuals red, yellow or green and to dictate whether they can move about or gather with others.

Israel’s counter-terrorism agency can monitor phone location data to alerts those who come close to infected people, while Singapore’s TraceTogether app allows authorities to identify people who have been exposed to others with the virus.

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