Coronavirus monitoring poses dangers for civil liberties

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The monitoring bracelets the Hong Kong authorities hand out to everyone arriving from abroad to ensure they observe a 14-day quarantine highlight the inventive measures some governments are adopting to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

The lightweight bracelets carry a QR code that must be paired with a smartphone app. The strength of surrounding communications signals — such as WiFi and Bluetooth — can help determine whether or not the wearer observes self-isolation. The move is a sensible precaution to counter the coronavirus pandemic and protect the public. But it is not hard to imagine how that same technology could be used for very different purposes.

Suppose, for sake of argument, the Hong Kong authorities forced all residents to wear such bracelets. That might help the medical authorities trace those who had been in contact with an infected person, as they have successfully been doing in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. But it may also allow them to identify all those who join anti-government protests that have been roiling Hong Kong in the past few months.

Technological tools can be of immense use in helping to combat this pandemic, but only if they are not abused. In democratic societies, at least, the prime goal of government should be to persuade rather than coerce its citizens. The further erosion of societal trust should not be an unintended casualty of this healthcare crisis.

That lesson applies more broadly to emergency legislation, too. Take the coronavirus bill being considered by the British parliament. Although the government has been criticised for not being interventionist enough, this bill will give it extraordinary new powers to combat the pandemic, from banning public meetings to shutting down airports.

International law includes access to healthcare as a core human right and accepts that temporary restrictions of other rights can be justified in emergencies. Few would disagree, but it is a question of degree.

In Britain, the joint parliamentary committee on human rights has highlighted several areas in which the draft bill threatens to suspend or curtail fundamental rights, including the right to meet, travel, go to school or work, and visit sick relatives in hospital or prison. Even the Police Federation has questioned the wisdom of new powers to detain anyone suspected of being infectious. That risks turning patients into prisoners.

There are two other main concerns about the British legislation. First, the sunset clause in the bill is too loose. When it comes to security legislation, few laws have proved as permanent as the temporary. For example, temporary measures to deal with the threat of the IRA in 1939 remained on the statute book for decades.

Parliament must insist on fully restoring the hard-won rights of citizens once this particular crisis has passed. “We need an absolute, brick-wall stop on this legislation at 12 months,” David Davis, the Tory former Brexit minister, has said.

The second concern is the danger of mission creep. Measures passed for one purpose often end up being used for others, as we saw in the aftermath of 9/11. In 2008, the British government used antiterrorism powers to help recover money owed to UK depositors from failing Icelandic banks.

Such concerns are becoming more acute as we enter a world of pervasive biometric data. In an open letter, some of Britain’s leading data scientists have already warned of the dangers of the National Health Service rushing to introduce data-tracking apps that infringe users’ rights. “These are testing times, but they do not call for untested new technologies,” they wrote.

Sylvie Delacroix, a law professor at the University of Birmingham, says there is a clear risk that the healthcare crisis extends the use of intrusive surveillance technologies. But perhaps the greater risk is that public trust will be so eroded by rash measures taken today that it will make it harder to deploy safe and beneficial technologies tomorrow.

“My main worry is that we are going into this blind,” Prof Delacroix says. “We do not know how such data is going to be used or who is going to safeguard it. It demands a huge amount of trust that we have no reason to give.”

She argues that more trustworthy data governance regimes are needed to preserve public trust and enable us to maximise the benefits of technology. “It is one thing to highlight the dangers, another to highlight the missed opportunities,” she says.

In emergencies, it is always tempting for security officials to argue that the ends justify the means, but such logic is often self-defeating. As the writer Aldous Huxley once said: “The end cannot justify the means, for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced.”

Of course, we want democratic governments to take every necessary measure to counter the coronavirus crisis. And we should recognise the dangers of inaction, as well as of action. But ultimately we will all lose if governments push their mandate too far and undermine the consent of the governed.

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