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As coronavirus surveillance escalates, personal privacy plummets

By Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun, The New York Times

In South Korea, government agencies are harnessing surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records to help trace the recent movements of coronavirus patients and establish virus transmission chains.

In Lombardy, Italy, authorities are analyzing location data transmitted by citizens’ mobile phones to determine how many people are obeying a government lockdown order and the typical distances they move every day. About 40% are moving around “too much,” an official recently said.

In Israel, the country’s internal security agency is poised to start using a cache of mobile phone location data — originally intended for counterterrorism operations — to try to pinpoint citizens who may have been exposed to the virus.

As countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance tools as a means to exert social control, even turning security agency technologies on their own civilians. Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale.

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.

Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.

“We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit organization in Manhattan.

As an example, he pointed to a law enacted by New York state this month that gives Gov. Andrew Cuomo unlimited authority to rule by executive order during state crises like pandemics and hurricanes. The law allows him to issue emergency response directives that could overrule any local regulations.

Increased surveillance and health data disclosures have also drastically eroded people’s ability to keep their health status private.

This month, Australia’s health minister publicly chastised a doctor whom she accused of treating patients while experiencing symptoms of the virus — essentially outing him by naming the small clinic in Victoria where he worked with a handful of other physicians.

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