Human rights must be safeguarded while fighting coronavirus

and Emerging Technologies, Featured

By Branka Marijan and Cesar Jaramillo

As global anxiety grows about the profound impact of the COVID-19 crisis, it may seem that no stone should be left unturned to resolve it. But governments’ use of technology presents clear risks of misuse and abuse. As the crisis unfolds, the methods used by states to tackle it will demand careful public scrutiny, rooted on legitimate expectations of enhanced transparency.

To track and contain COVID-19, at least 30 countries are now employing a variety of technological approaches, including applications that collect phone location and health date and electronic bracelets. Drones are increasingly used to monitor public spaces and to ensure that individuals are abiding by quarantine regulations. Tech giants Apple and Google recently announced work on a coronavirus tracking tool for smartphones that can let users know when they come into contact with someone with COVID-19.

A joint civil-society statement released earlier this month by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and more than 100 other organizations called upon governments to respect human rights when using digital surveillance technologies.

More than 300 Canadian groups endorsed various guiding principles to ensure that the Canadian government’s response to the pandemic fully respects human rights, including in relation to tracking and surveillance measures. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a set of recommended policies “against overreach and abuse” of the smartphone application announced by Apple and Google.

To maintain public trust and support for different technological initiatives, governments must provide complete information on their scope, duration, safeguards, and specific objectives. At a minimum, the following questions require credible, timely responses:

Exactly what measures are being implemented?

It is the responsibility of the government to keep the public well informed — particularly those who are affected by its decisions. Moreover, widespread surveillance of individuals who do not pose a direct threat requires a solid and transparent justification by government. The public also needs to know whether anyone is being monitored without their knowledge and whether measures are voluntary or compulsory.

Read full article in the Toronto Star.

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