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Pandemic response prompts privacy concerns

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From tracking citizens with apps and wristbands, to using facial recognition and drones to spot people breaking out of quarantine; governments are employing powerful and intrusive tools to fight the pandemic. Tolls that threaten individual privacy.

This has prompted a strong reaction from some members of the cryptocurrency community. American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked privacy abuses from U.S. security agencies, has warned that even when the coronavirus is gone, the intrusive measures are likely to remain.

“When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky,” said Snowden in a virtual interview at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival. "The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power."

'Sticky' surveillance measures

Data from afflicted countries appears to show that severely limiting individual freedoms is the best way to prevent the virus spreading. But in Western democracies, such distasteful authoritarian measures haven't been seen since the war effort.

Singapore, the island nation which has won praise for its skillful handling of the crisis, has kept the virus in-check with a high-tech approach that relies on a tracking app—TraceTogether—that would likely be incompatible with data protection laws in Europe and the U.S. But while it might upset freedom-loving westerners, the effectiveness of the approach means schools and businesses have not had to shut down, mitigating the economic fallout.

Similar measures have been implemented across Asia and other countries leading the fight against the virus.

China is using thermal scanners installed in public places like train stations to identify those with a fever, and in South Korea, citizens must install a compulsory app that enforces self-isolation on the threat of a $8,400 fine or up to a year in prison. Similarly, the Hong Kong government has earnt praise by enforcing the wearing of a mandatory wristband that tracks the location of arrivals to the country.

Western democracies weighing similar measures, however, are facing a backlash.

Across Europe and the U..S. tech companies and mobile firms are in talks with governments about sharing data that could help track the spread of COVID-19.

But such measures go against the grain for societies that are increasingly working towards protecting the rights of the individual through data protection legislation. And as Snowden suggests, the valuable data that is shared in such agreements is unlikely to be returned willingly.

"They already know what you're seeing on the Internet," said Snowden in the interview. "They already know where their phone is moving. Now they know what their heart rate is, what their pulse is. What happens when they start mixing and applying artificial intelligence to it?"



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Kieran Smith, Khareem Sudlow