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Here’s how gov’ts used COVID tech to expand surveillance globally

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Austin Sawyeron, a military police officer with Provost Marshal’s Office, Security and Emergency Services Battalion, scans an ID card. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Andrew Cortez)
February 07, 2023

The outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic led many countries to adopt measures to trace the spread of the virus and track compliance with self-isolation measures. Those emergency measures have now become a convenient expansion of capabilities for police states around the world.

As part of a series of investigations on how governments use everyday technologies to track and police their populations, the Associated Press published a report detailing how China, India, Israel, Australia and even the United States used pandemic-related measures to expand their repertoire of surveillance technologies.

China has maintained so-called “Covid Zero” policies throughout much of the pandemic. Many Chinese cities required their citizens to install cell-phone apps in order to be allowed to move freely about those cities. Those apps included QR-codes that would change from green to yellow or red, depending on a person’s health status.

As part of the strict lockdown measures, local governments could switch their health passes to red, revoking all freedom of movement and requiring all individuals to stay home. While the measures ostensibly exist to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Chinese authorities have also used the health pass system in an attempt to quash protests throughout the country.

In November, as protests broke out against China’s strict lockdown measures, Chinese authorities were observed switching people’s health passes to red without any specific evidence that those individuals had been infected. The health pass changes appear to have been done to further warn would-be protesters to remain off the streets.

Israel’s Shin Bet security service has used phone surveillance technology to monitor militants inside Palestinian territories. After the outbreak of COVID-19, the Isreali government repurposed those phone tracking technologies for contact-tracing purposes. Those technologies came back around to monitoring potential militants amid clashes between Israeli authorities and Palestinians in the Spring of 2021.

Israeli security services used these phone tracking technologies to send threatening messages to suspected militants.

Majd Ramlawi, shared with the Associated Press a text message he received, saying “You have been spotted as having participated in acts of violence in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will hold you accountable.”

Ramlawi and many others who received that messages insisted they only lived or worked in the area and had nothing to do with the clashes at that Al-Aqsa Mosque that led to an 11-day battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.

Ramlawi deleted the message and hasn’t received another one since, but he told the Associated Press he’s nervous about the idea that his phone is being used to monitor him and deliver the Israeli government’s threatening messages.

Since 2014, Indian authorities have widely adopted facial recognition systems and artificial intelligence to monitor mass gatherings. After the outbreak of COVID-19, those measures expanded. 

In May of 2020, as COVID-19 spread, the police chief of India’s Telangana state announced that his department was rolling out AI-based software to monitor CCTV footage to identify people not wearing masks. The practice of police using tablets to take pictures of people not wearing masks also grew and, as it did, Indian authorities began uploading those photos to a facial recognition database of criminals.

“If the patrolling officers suspect any person, they take their fingerprints or scan their face – the app on the tablet will then check these for any past criminal antecedents,” B Guru Naidu, an inspector in Hyderabad’s South Zone, told the Associated Press.

In Australia, authorities adopted national and state-level apps to notify people when they had been in the vicinity of someone who tested positive for the virus. 

Australian intelligence agencies were later caught “incidentally” collecting data from the national-level COVID app. Australia’s Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security said there was no evidence that the data was decrypted, accessed or used.

Local Australian police agencies did, however, use state-level public health apps in criminal investigations.

In the U.S., the data mining and surveillance company Palantir Technologies Inc. won two contracts in 2020, worth $24.9 million, to mine data for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ pandemic response. 

The immigration rights group Just Futures Law filed a Freedom of Information Act request that uncovered documents indicating federal officials considered ways to share data that went far beyond COVID-19. The proposed data collection included gathering so-called “identifiable patient data,” such as histories of mental health, substance use and behavioral health information from group homes, shelters, jails, detox facilities and schools. 

HHS spokesman Kevin Griffis said the U.S. Center For Disease Control does not use any of that individual-level information in the data it currently manages, but he could not speak to how far those ideas were pursued under the previous Trump administration. In July 2021, Under the Biden administration, the CDC did purchase cellphone location data revealing people’s daily whereabouts, nationwide. The agency said it used this data to “project how much worse things would have been” without pandemic lockdown orders and business closures.