Computer Security The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Expanding Surveillance...

The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Expanding Surveillance Programs around the World

coronavirus trackingTaking measures to slow down the infection of the coronavirus pandemic, over 30 governments around the world have been expanding their efforts to find infected individuals or to maintain the quarantine. These efforts and measures often undermine personal privacy as part of their operations.

In many countries, this is considered a necessary evil, since governments need the information to formulate better containment strategies and resource management. At the same time, these very same governments possess the power to use tools that undermine the privacy of citizens once the crisis is over. Examples of programs like these can be seen with the Patriot Act of 2001, as well as the various surveillance programs around the world such as PRISM, Echelon, INDECT, and the Chinese Social Credit System, Project 6, Onyx, Tempora and many more. Some of those were clandestine, others are public knowledge, but they all have one thing in common – information gathering on a massive scale. The emergency powers given by the Patriot Act gave the US government the ability to expand its surveillance powers, often demanding customer data from telecommunication companies without court approval. Two decades later, the Patriot Act is still alive, and well and surveillance have not been scaled down. Under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, various governments are expanding their efforts to increase monitoring to get a better understanding of the spread of the contagion.

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Various methods of citizen tracking are being used globally

Countries around the world are using various surveillance methods to battle the pandemic, often through the use of smartphone location data. That is done to track population movement down to individuals in the middle of quarantines, with some governments making apps that offer information or share location data with the authorities. Examples of that could be seen in a Vice report in March, showing an Iranian government app that was used to track and record the location data of millions of citizens.

The increased level of surveillance has also led to malicious actors making use of the measures to push their tools onto the general public. An example of that could be seen with the 'corona live 1.1' app. The app is malicious, and it eventually gains access to photos, media, device location data, and files as well as permissions to record audio and video from affected devices. The app is, in fact, a sample of SpyMaxRat, a potentially Lybian cybercriminal tool used to steal personal information from its victims.

Argentinian citizens see similar measures but aimed at people who break quarantine. The government forces the breakers to download an app that tracks their location at all times. Hong Kong visitors arriving at the airport are given tracking bracelets that need to be synced to their home location using a smartphone GPS signal.

A OneZero report showed measures riding the line of infringing privacy are being used in 30 countries and potentially more. The listed countries took the following steps:


The Argentinian Ministry of Health uses a mandatory app for people entering the country, keeping it installed on their devices for 14 days, forcing users to give access to location data. It is currently unclear what the government is using that data for and whether they are tracking people with it. The province of Santa Fe was allegedly forcing quarantine breakers to download the app that tracks their movements at all times.


People ordered into quarantine may have government surveillance devices installed in their homes, or they may be forced to wear such, according to a new law passed in Western Australia. The Australian government decided to avoid smartphone-based GPS tracking.


An Australian telecommunications company gave location data of its users spanning two days to the government. The data was used to analyze their movement around the country. The data was reportedly aimed at groups of 20+ people.


The country is now using electronic bracelets connected to a mobile app, allowing the government to track confirmed cases of COVID-19, similar to measures taken in Hong Kong. Citizens who break the quarantine face a minimum of three months prison sentence, according to MobiHealthNews.


Three telecoms in the country are giving away data to Dalberg Data Insights, a company analyzing the information to detect movement trends of the tracked citizens. The government is also using drones to make announcements in cities, but may also be using them to capture surveillance footage of suspects, according to the Digital Rights Tracker of Tp10VPN.


Local governments around Brazil are using their citizens' smartphones to track location data. In the city of Recife, 700 thousand people are being tracked through their devices, just one example of the measures taken in the country. Most of the tracking done is in the hands of Brazilian startup companies working together with the local governments.


China's massive surveillance program is being used with all tools available. The authorities are tapping public cameras to run facial recognition; citizens are location-tracked via their phones, drones are patrolling the skies to give directions from the government, according to CNBC. The Chinese government is also tracking people in over 200 cities using a smartphone app that assigns them a classification from green to red based on their health condition, according to the New York Times. The app sends the data to the police and works as a way to allow entry into public spaces.

Travel to hotspots or contact with infected people, as well as reporting symptoms in the app, can result in the downgrading of a citizen's status from green to yellow or red, restricting their movement. At the time, it is unclear how one moves back to a green status or how the decisions are made. The government is also putting the screws on private companies in the country to give over their data to allow even more tracking of citizens within their borders.


Cameras used to detect speeding drivers in Dubai are bow used to record driver's license plates and to determine if the driver is an essential worker, according to Gulf News. The system is also used to track the route of a driver and if they are going to work.


Ecuador is using cellphone location tracking throughout the nation to enforce a curfew every evening at 9 PM and to slow down the spread of the virus, according to EcuadorTV.


German telecommunications company Telekom is providing its location data to the Robert Koch Institute, an organization coordinating the national action against the pandemic. Germany is also on the verge of launching a Bluetooth-based app to track personal movements and contact between people. The public health authority in the country also launched a smartwatch app that collects user health data to determine whether people have symptoms of the disease.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong uses electronic wristbands to track the locations of citizens in quarantine. Wristbands are given out at airports and must be paired with the smartphones of individuals. Once a person arrives at home, they have one minute to calibrate the wristband by walking around their home before the app kicks in. That sets the borders they're not supposed to leave during the quarantine.


The Indian government expanded citizen tracking using analog and digital measures. CCTV and location data are used to track citizens in Kerala, according to Reuters. Western states in the country are also stamping people arriving on airports with permanent ink, showing the final date the person must stay in quarantine. Apart from personal tracking, the authorities are taking passenger information from railroad companies and airlines. Fingerprint scanners are avoided to cut down on the spread of the virus, so facial recognition is being adopted en masse across the country. SecureEye, an Indian telecom, is replacing its 650 fingerprint security checkpoints at hotels and offices with facial recognition sensors.


The Indonesian government developed an app that tracks interactions between Bluetooth devices, such as smartphones, to gauge social distancing and personal interactions. It isn't mandatory, and it offers the benefit of notifying people who may have been exposed or tested for viral symptoms.


The country is developing an app to grab the location data of millions of users, pairing it with a questionnaire that allegedly detects the likelihood of infection, according to a Vice report. Tens of millions of Iranians received a notice about the app, with directions to take the questions before going in for testing. According to an official, more than 3.5 million people shared their location data.


The Israelis are using data from telecom providers to track the locations of millions of their citizens to find those diagnosed with the virus and to alert people whom the infected may have had contact with. Quarantine breakers are given up to six months of prison time.


Vodafone is providing the Italian government with heatmaps of their Italian clients and their locations, starting with Lombardy. Officials shared that 40% of people are moving around too much, according to a New York Times report.


The Kenyan government is using aerial surveillance around the clock to track illegal entry into the country, be it people or goods.


The Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the local tech company Simula are building a non-mandatory app that tracks Bluetooth and GPS data for up to 30 days.


The Pakistani government is tracking confirmed cases and sending alerts to citizens through the use of location surveillance and mass texts, tracking people who had contact with those within two weeks.


Home Quarantine is an app that requires quarantined Polish citizens to check-in by sending a photo of themselves inside their homes within 20 minutes of being pinged. Failing to do that means the citizens are facing a fine. The app uses facial recognition through the smartphone to determine whether the person is there, and the location data is used to ensure the users are at home.


Using the over 100 thousand cameras around the city of Moscow, the Russian government is using facial recognition and smartphone-based tracking to keep an eye on people under quarantine. The local governments were called to create their surveillance, as is the case in Nizhny Novgorod. Citizens must download an app that has a timed QR code that allows them to go outside for groceries for three hours, an hour to walk the dog or 30 minutes for taking out the trash, according to the Washington Post.


The government of Singapore uses an app called TraceTogether, pinging nearby smartphones using Bluetooth to check which people have been within 6.5 feet of each other for more than 30 minutes, according to the LA Times. Data is stored for 21 days, according to the developers, and it doesn't record any location data.

South Africa

Telecommunications companies across South Africa are giving their cellphone location data to the government to help track the pandemic, according to Business Insider South Africa. More than 1500 people shared their data so far.

South Korea

Confirmed cases within South Korea are being tracked using credit card purchase data, smartphone location tracking, CCTV footage, and facial recognition, according to Reuters. That allows the Korean government to trace the past actions of people infected with the virus, pairing the location data to check nearby CCTV and to see whether they were wearing a mask.


Swisscom alerts the federal government if more than 20 phones are located in a 100 square meter area, helping the government to enforce social distancing.


The government of Taiwan claims no surveillance technology is used, their citizens are being tracked by triangulation of cellphone signals to nearby cell towers.


Thailand gives out SIM cards to people arriving from high-risk areas that allow the government to track their movements for 14 days.


The government of Turkey is tracking the locations of COVID-19 patients by using their cellular data, sending warning messages if they are detected violating quarantine. Cell companies in the country are cooperating with the government to provide the data, according to the government-run Anadolu Agency. A draft law was proposed that would mandate social media websites like Facebook, Youtube and WhatsApp to have a legal representative in Turkey the government could pressure to take down content or ban accounts, but those parts of the draft were withdrawn, according to the Human Rights Watch.

United Kingdom

The UK is allegedly working with telecom companies to keep track of their citizens' location data. The National Health Service is partnering up with Palantir to keep track of the spread of the contagion and the impact on the health system.

United States

The United States mobile ad industry is now supplying location data to local, state, and federal governments on its customers, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. The data is used to tell whether people are complying with the stay-at-home directions or if the public spaces are still in use. Foursquare, which uses one of the most comprehensive personal location data repositories, is in talks with government organizations, according to the WSI. Much of the data collected from these apps is open for resale to third parties.
The goal of the efforts is to ensure a portal is created that tracks the movement of US citizens and residents in about 500 cities. Google is also adding its movement data to the project, using services like Google Maps and its traffic function.

Local policies have also taken a troubling turn in many places. West Virginia residents tested positive for the virus are being outfitted with GPS ankle monitors, according to Associated Press.

Apple and Google have announced a new set of tools used to detect whether individuals have had close contact with people diagnosed with the virus. The software is planned for integration with Apple and Android phones, making tracking more or less absolute. The software's privacy settings are currently unknown.

The predictive policing company PredPol advised on new ways customers may use their software for coronavirus control in a blog post this week.

"Most people gracefully accept these orders to protect their fellow citizens, but not everyone cooperates, so rolling a cruiser through their neighborhood periodically can remind them of their obligations," the blog mentions.

New Jersey and Connecticut police are using aerial drones with temperature sensors to look for people with fever in public spaces. The drones are made by Draganfly, a company that claims the drones may detect sneezing, respiratory rate, fevers, and whether people are at the right distance from each other.

The British startup company Onfido is in early talks with the US and European governments about developing what they call a 'passport' that proves immunity to the virus, according to Axios.