Sunday

1st Aug 2021

Analysis

Coronavirus: Are we trading privacy for security?

  • Concerns over the abuse of surveillance power by some countries has even been highlighted by the World Health Organization itself (Photo: Book Catalog)

The response of EU countries to the coronavirus outbreak has prompted unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation.

Data collection can be essential to understand and respond to the Covid-19 emergency, but creating such digital surveillance risks failure and adverse side-effects.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, digital rights defenders warned that collecting massive volumes of citizens' data can lead to an increase in state digital surveillance powers - which might pose a risk to citizens' fundamental rights.

"We can have privacy and security. It is not a zero-sum game," the spokesperson of the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency, Nicole Romain, told this website.

"Given the unprecedented situation, restrictions or limitations to many fundamental rights are legitimate, as long as they are consistent with our legal safeguards and are in place only as long as necessary," she added.

Last week, more than 100 NGOs and consumer groups from all over the world called on member states not to use the coronavirus pandemic "as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance".

However, the concerns over the abuse of surveillance power of some countries has even been highlighted by the World Health Organization (WHO) itself.

"When we talk about surveillance in the case of public health, the gathering of information about individuals, their movements must be done with the consent of the community and in many cases of the individual themselves," said WHO key advisor, Michael Ryan, earlier this year.

Tracking people like never before?

As long as measures in place use aggregated and anonymised data there should be, in principle, no impact on privacy rights since they would be in line with EU data protection rules.

"However, new local apps are appearing by the minute and it is not clear if all of them are in line with GDPR [EU's data protection rules] and ePrivacy," said the head of policy at European Digital Rights, Diego Naranjo.

Likewise, Naranjo believes that the coronavirus crisis reaffirms the need to update the EU's ePrivacy rules - which have been blocked by member states for more than three years.

According to Lucie Krahulcova, a policy analyst at NGO AccessNow, "the most worrying are tracking applications which use a combination of mobile network data together with bluetooth and wifi pings to track location".

More and more member states are launching apps to monitor quarantined patients or trace contact, which prompted that the European Commission recently announced guidelines for the use of technology and data to fight and exit the pandemic.

However, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) called, instead, for a pan-European Covid-19 app amid the proliferation of country-specific apps.

Poland was the first EU country to launch a mobile application amid the pandemic - the 'Home Quarantine' app requires people to take selfies to prove they are quarantining properly, but personal data will be retained for six years.

However, Germany, Ireland, the UK, France, Italy and Spain have also announced their plans for their own apps.

Germany and Spain the exception

Meanwhile, telecom operators agreed to share aggregated mobile phone location data with the commission to track the spread of the coronavirus.

The EU's data watchdog backed the commission's plan, but stressed that "it would also be preferable to limit access to the data to authorised experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection and data science".

Although data protection rules still apply, some countries have slightly changed their data protection rules.

Germany, for instance, has amended its GDPR-enabling legislation to allow for processing personal data in the event of an epidemic.

One can assume that temporary measures taken during a state of emergency will disappear once the emergency is over, but experts warned about the negative possible outcome of this 'experiment'.

"We must ensure that the measures governments are taking right now do not transform this health crisis into a global human rights crisis," said Estelle Massé, a senior policy analyst at NGO Access Now.

Privacy issues arise as governments track virus

Governments are attempting to track the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across Europe using mobile phone data. When it comes to data protection, exceptions are allowed in times of crisis but must be limited in time and scope, critics warn.

Podcast

Věra Jourová on surveillance and Covid-19

Commissioner for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, says Brussels will vet moves in Hungary to give prime minister Viktor Orbán scope to rule by decree and urges Facebook and Google to push official health advice to WhatsApp and YouTube.

Column

Saving Europe from corona's nasty geopolitics

Four months into the corona crisis and one month into the social and economic shutdown, it seems the big geopolitical loser of the pandemic is likely going to be Europe.

EU and UK frustrated at US travel ban extension

The US remains closed to tourists from the EU and the UK - a situation that has prompted frustration and urgent calls for the reopening of international travel to vaccinated individuals by industry and countries.

News in Brief

  1. Officials worried at infection-surge on Greek holiday islands
  2. EU calls on online platforms to tackle vaccine hesitancy
  3. Russia accused of falling short on Sputnik V deliveries
  4. France: UK quarantine rules 'discriminatory'
  5. Italy's government reaches deal on judicial reform
  6. EU adopts guidelines to 'climate-proof' infrastructure projects
  7. US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation
  8. EU to buy 220,000 supplies of potential Covid treatment

Delta variant poses 'mandatory' vaccination dilemma for EU

The spread of the more contagious Delta variant has prompted authorities in member states to accelerate inoculation campaigns, and even make vaccination mandatory - in a bid to halt the new surge of cases and avoid lockdowns in the autumn.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNineteen demands by Nordic young people to save biodiversity
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSustainable public procurement is an effective way to achieve global goals
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council enters into formal relations with European Parliament
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen more active in violent extremist circles than first assumed
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance

Latest News

  1. Malta responsible for journalist's death, inquiry finds
  2. Can Greece work with Biden to solve the West Balkans impasse?
  3. EU and UK frustrated at US travel ban extension
  4. Polish judges rally behind EU court ruling
  5. Why 'Fit for 55' isn't fit for purpose
  6. EU hits vaccination target, as Delta variant now dominates
  7. European arms 'displaced over a million people', research finds
  8. Brexit: what is the 'Lugano Convention' and does it matter?

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us