You know how they say that desperate times call for desperate measures. According to multiple reports online, it seems that governments are considering spying on peoples’ smartphone data in order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
As per BBC.com, the Israel government has approved emergency measures that allow them to track mobile data of the people with suspected coronavirus infections in order to control the spread of the malady.
Also, according to a Washington Post report, in the US, the government is in discussion with tech industries figuring out ways to use smartphone location data in order to curb the infection.
How Will This Work?
In the case of Israel’s monitoring plans, details of how the data will be tracked have not been disclosed. However, it is believed that the location data will be collected from telecommunication companies by the local security agencies and will subsequently be shared with medical institutions.
Once a person has been highlighted as a possible coronavirus case, he/she will be tracked to see whether they are adhering to the quarantine stipulations. This system can also be used to send SMSs or any kind of intimation to alert people who might have come in contact with a person believed to be carrying the virus.
The US government, on the other hand, is in talks with tech giants like Facebook, Google, and other tech companies on how they can use the location data from users’ smartphones to combat the spread of the virus and also ensure that people are keeping a safe distance from each other and large social gatherings are not taking place.
Public health sectors are looking into possibilities that these tech companies will compile the data in an anonymous, aggregated form which they can later use to map the spread of the infection.
“We’re exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps.”Google Spokesperson Johnny Luu to The Washington Post
A Necessary Evil?
Nobody likes to be spied upon, but many might consider this move a necessary evil. The fact that such a level of monitoring can help curb the infection might come out positively in the eyes of many.
Currently, a mass surveillance system has been implemented in China to keep a tab on infected people. WeChat developer Tencent has launched a QR-code tracking feature and there is also a Close Contact Detector app that notifies the user if they have been in close proximity with an infected person.
Many governments and tech companies have been criticised for being callous with their user data which has resulted in numerous data leaks in the past. Seemingly, in order for something like this to work there needs to be a balance between public health needs and civil rights.
What does establish a sense of assurance is Google’s statement that it would not be sharing data about any individual's location, movement or contacts.
Considering the rate at which the infection is spreading from one country to another it would behoove the citizens of the world to comply with such a monitoring program being implemented. Don't’ you think?
Can The Government Ask For Your Personal Data?
You can never have a direct answer to the question above. Yes, the NSA (National Security Agency) in the US was caught snooping on its citizens in 2013 when whistleblower Edward Snowden blew their cover. However, legally, it is not allowed to spy on its citizens.
It is also believed that many countries are involved in a mass surveillance program of its citizens by collecting data from mobile phones but no government has accepted this on record.
In the US, authorities can extract data from your emails and texts by going to Google or any tech company with a court order showing probable cause of a crime.
In India, as per the Cyber And Information Security Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, central agencies can demand access to any form of data stored in any form of computing device across the country. They can also decrypt any encrypted data and can intercept a transmission from any device in question.
The above can only be executed if it is necessary to maintain the sovereignty of the country, defense of India, the security of the State, or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence. However, at no point does the government’s order suggest that the data will be acquired without the user’s permission.