Civil Society Pushes Back Against Coronavirus Surveillance

Volume I Issue XII

I hope all of you all are managing to stay safe and healthy out there. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for just about everyone and I just want to extend my earnest condolences for anyone suffering from layoffs, family concerns, or general pandemic anxieties. A special shout out to all my New York readers who are really going through it right now. By all measures, the next few weeks are going to be fucking rough, but there’s an end to all of this (eventually) and we’ll make it through. 

Y’all may have noticed a familiar theme occurring in this newsletter over the past few issues. This seemingly spontaneous global pandemic has become the news story that all others revolve around and as such, I’ve tried to adjust my coverage here to reflect that which is on the top of everyone’s mind. In their attempts to mitigate the virus’s spread, governments all around the globe are putting in place some of the most expansive surveillance systems ever known to modern society.

The choice here, one fundamentally between privacy and public health, is complicated and filled with the types of tradeoffs usually resigned to an undergrad economics course or some consequentialist philospoher’s fever dream. While I, nor anyone else, could have predicted this particular pandemic, the resulting fallout speaks to the mission of this newsletter since its inception. When the virus eventually subsides and we collectively emerge from our homes and apartments to greet the new world, these same tradeoffs will persist. The lens with which we view surveillance in that world may depend in large part on the decision we make now. 

This newsletter will continue to look for topics and stories outside of mainstream media coverage to highlight, but don’t be surprised if the next few weeks, or even months, feature a steady supply of questions over the efficacy of surveillance to fight the coronavirus. Many of these questions won’t have clear answers, but in a way, that’s the point. 

Ideally, this space should serve as a launchpad for discussion and debate, rather than my own one-sided monologue. As such, my DMs are always open, and I read every email. I’d love to include any of y’alls questions, thoughts, or opinions in future issues.

PS: There’s no big story today, however, paid subscribers will receive a bonus issue over the weekend featuring a longer blog and some additional news. If you haven’t already signed up and are interested in receiving that issue, you can become a subscriber by clicking the button below. Stay safe, and have a great weekend y’all. 


In Other News…

***Civil Society Pushes Back Against Coronavirus Surveillance***

100 different civil liberties groups have joined together to speak out against mass surveillance in the name of coronavirus tracking. Over the past few weeks, this newsletter has glumly lamented the seemingly lack of any real opposition to the unprecedented surveillance push being thrust upon society in response to the coronavirus. Now, activists groups are speaking out. 

Amnesty International, Access Now, the Australian Privacy Foundation, Big Brother Watch, Digital Rights Watch, and the World Wide Web Foundation are among the groups demanding governments strike a balance between virus tracking and human rights. 

Here are the first few lines of the joint statement:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a global public health emergency that requires a coordinated and large-scale response by governments worldwide. However, States’ efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance.

“We, the undersigned organizations, urge governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic in a way that ensures that the use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations is carried out strictly in line with human rights.”

While the groups acknowledged that some level of government surveillance may be necessary to combat the virus, they buttressed that by demanding that any measured adopted be “lawful, necessary and proportionate.” (That’s my emphasis at the end. ) 

The groups also said that any expansion of surveillance powers should be limited in time, and shouldn’t linger on once the virus subsides. Additionally, the groups want governments to prove that they are only using the newly collected data to combat the coronavirus and asked officials to step in to ensure that all collected data is actually anonymized. 

“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 wrote. 

In a separate emailed statement shared with me, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech Rasha Abdul Rahim expanded on the point further.

“Increased digital surveillance to tackle this public health emergency, can only be used if certain strict conditions are met.

“Authorities cannot simply disregard the right to privacy and must ensure any new measures have robust human rights safeguards. Wherever governments use the power of technology as part of their strategy to beat COVID-19, they must do so in a way that respects human rights.”

While the joint statement represents a key turning point in the debate over surveillance, it lacks the signatures of several heavyweight activist groups: The American Civil Liberties Union and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

***Saudia Arabia allegedly tracking its citizens around the globe***

A new report out of The Guardian claims the Saudi Arabian government is using a global security flaw in telecoms companies to track the movements of Saudi citizens around the globe. Data of the alleged spying was provided to The Guardian by a whistleblower who claimed the government had issued “millions of tracking requests” over a four-month period beginning in November 2019. 

Here’s Dan Goodin summarizing it for Ars Technica. 

“The publication cited data provided by a whistleblower that suggests Saudi Arabia is engaged in systematic spying by abusing Signalling System No. 7. Better known as SS7, it’s a routing protocol that allows cell phone users to connect seamlessly from carrier to carrier as they travel throughout the world.” 

Stephanie Kirchgaessner, The Guardian 

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***Spyware mercenaries hopping on the Coronavirus bandwaggon*** 

Israeli spyware company NSO Group says it wants to help Western countries track coronavirus cases. The surveillance company has garnered international infamy over the past few years after multiple media reports linked the company’s Pegasus spyware with cartel killings in Mexico and Saudia Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in 2018. Now, with other major surveillance companies like Palantir and Clearview AI already announcing their intentions to intervene in coronavirus tracking, NSO Group is preparing to throw its hat in the race. 

The company, which has a reputation for tight-lipped secrecy on its most controversial surveillance tools, has been going out of its way to share its new software with media, including Sky News. Here’s Alexander Martin Writing for Sky News after being shown a demonstration of NSO’s potential monitoring system.

“Individuals are featured on the platform using a random identifier. Their location movements are timestamped, offering the authorities the ability to trace where infected people have been following diagnosis and potentially to check who may have been infected by them.”

Monitored users allegedly receive a score from 1 to 10, measuring how likely someone is of contracting the coronavirus. Recent reporting suggests officials in Israel are already working with NSO Group to track its residents.

Alexander Martin, Sky News 

***Evil Android Apps***

Over 4,000 Android apps are secretly collecting personal data, turning it into profiles, and shipping it off to advertisers. The horde of malicious apps, discovered recently by a group of researchers, allegedly uses an Android programming interface to scan a phone and suck up details about all the other apps loaded on the device. Those details include the names of apps, the date they were first downloaded, and three dozen other categories. The apps use that data to create a personalized profile that is then sent to advertisers.

Here’s Dan Goodin summarizing the research in Wired 

The researchers studied 14,342 free Android apps in the Google Play Store and 7,886 open source Android apps and analyzed the apps’ use of IAMs. The researchers found that 4,214 of the Google Play apps, representing slightly more than 30 percent of those studied, used IAMs. Only 228 of the open-source apps, or a little less than 3 percent, collected details of other apps. With more than 3 million apps available in the Google-hosted service, the actual number of prying apps is almost certainly an order of magnitude higher than the 4,214 found in the study.

In descending order, the top five Google Play app categories that most frequently collected the data were: Games (73 percent), Comics (71 percent), Personalization (61 percent), Autos and Vehicles (54 percent), and Family (43 percent). The figure below lists the use of IAMS across all categories

Dan Goodin, Wired 

***Blockchain vs Chinese Surveillance***

Creative Chinese activists are using blockchain to get manoeuver around government surveillance and post coronavirus content. While countries all around the globe are rapidly embracing some level of surveillance and censorship to combat the coronavirus pandemic, none have taken the practice nearly as far as China. Back in January, before more people had any inkling that the virus would cross borders and become a global pandemic, the Chinese government was actively silencing whistleblowing doctors and limiting the content of speech related to the virus on social media. 

One of the Chinese doctors who spoke out about the governments’ containment shortcoming early on was Dr. Ai Fen, the director of Wuhan Central Hospital’s emergency room. Ai Fen gave an interview several months ago where she said the government had given here an “unprecedented and severe rebuke” for trying to warn doctors of COVID-19. That interview was quickly scrubbed from most of the Chinese internet. But not anymore. 

According to Roger Huang writing for Forbes, a group of Chinese citizens recently posted the full interview on the Etherium blockchain. While the Chinese government has cracked down recently on Virtual Private Networks and other means of bypassing state surveillance, content on a blockchain is much more difficult.

Roger Huang, Forbes 

Long Reads/Food For Thought 

Privacy Experts Say Responsible Coronavirus Sureveilence is Possible

By Sam Biddle, for The Intercept 

Today’s COVID-19 Data Will be Tomorrow’s Tools of Oppression

By Mona Sloane for The Daily Beast 

Will the Role of Facial Recognition Grow in a Post-COVID-19 World?

By Jeffrey D. Neuburger for The National Law Review 

U.K. Government Is Using Coronavirus As Excuse To Ramp Up Surveillance

By Simon Chandler for Forbes 

Alright, that’s it for now. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for another issue next week.

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