With restrictions on movements and gatherings, much of the world has been using technology to work and learn (and watch Netflix) from home during the last month. Governments have also been deploying digital tools in their responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, and for this monthly roundup, we take a look at some of those that concern disinformation and surveillance.
While Singapore was initially praised for its rapid and effective response to the pandemic, in recent weeks the country has experienced outbreaks among its neglected migrant communities who live in crowded, poor conditions. Part of the government’s response has been its notorious misinformation law, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act. Under the law, officials have requested that Facebook disable access to the page of the States Times Review – which posts anti-government news and commentary to its 54,000 followers. Authorities allege the page contains “false statements” about the government’s response, including that the international community is losing confidence in the country’s public health measures. After seeking legal advice, Facebook eventually complied with the request, but released a statement expressing the company’s concern on the impact the law has on free speech. The government has denounced similar criticism that the Act is a tool to suppress opposition, and is now considering how to remove false communications on encrypted applications, such as WhatsApp, which companies don’t have access to.
With no existing law against misinformation, South Africa’s disaster management regulations now prohibit the sharing of coronavirus-related information “with the intention to deceive.” A person who contravenes the regulations will be liable to a fine or imprisonment of up to 6 months. The government has also placed an additional duty on ISPs to remove any identified false content from their platforms. So far, a number of arrests have been made, including a man who posted a video violating and mocking the regulations. You can read more of our coverage and what this means for free expression in the country here.
The Home Ministry of India has issued an order making it mandatory for all public and private workers to download the government’s contract-tracing app. The Aarogya Setu app uses location data to map the movements of those infected with the coronavirus, and sends alerts to those who come in contact with them. The responsibility is on employers to ensure that their workforce complies with the order, but experts are skeptical about the legal ramifications if an employee refuses to download it. An additional concern is the impact this has on citizens’ privacy, which was recognized as a constitutional right in the famous ‘Aadhaar’ judgement, and thus can only be limited in accordance with prescribed procedures which have not yet been followed.
South Korea’s tracing program is extensive and meticulous. When a person tests positive for the virus, authorities reconstruct an hour-by-hour timeline of the person’s whereabouts in the days leading up to the diagnosis. This information is derived from interviews, cellphone location data, credit card transaction history and CCTV footage that reports suggest private business owners are required to supply. This data is also shared via public alerts to people in affected districts, and the alerts archived on local websites, without anonymizing the age, gender and ethnicity of the patients. This is seemingly inconsistent with South Korea’s strict personal data protection law, the Personal Information Protection Act, which also includes the right to be forgotten, and applies to both the private and public sector. But the government has exercised an exception in the statute, which permits government agencies to collect and use data without consent if it’s in the public interest to do so. The privacy concerns of the tracing program are manifest, and some individuals have been subject to harassment. Notwithstanding, South Korea’s responses to the pandemic, including its tracing program, have been heralded both locally and globally.
In light of many countries adopting stricter measures during this time, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has encouraged governments to center the dignity and respect of people in their responses. We hope they heed this call, and ensure that both access to information and privacy are protected going forward.