Life Tech From drones to phone tracking: Coronavirus crisis puts our civil liberties at risk, experts warn
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From drones to phone tracking: Coronavirus crisis puts our civil liberties at risk, experts warn

Beachgoers are now being monitored by police to ensure compliance with social distancing rules. Photo: Getty
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The coronavirus pandemic has dire implications for our civil liberties unless safeguards are put in place, experts have warned.

There have already been alarming reports of COVID-19 emergency measures that are “capable of infringing our human rights” and that will “last longer than the actual crisis”, Flinders University criminology and human rights law expert Marinella Marmo told The New Daily.

The warning comes as the nation braces for what the government has admitted are more “draconian measures” to contain the virus.

Initial steps have included the closure of Sydney’s Bondi Beach after thousands crowded its shores despite pleas for social distancing, and police monitoring of beachgoers to ensure they stay at least 1.5 metres apart.

Phone tracking technology has also been used to successfully curb the spread of COVID-19 overseas, and on Friday, Victoria launched its system to monitor confirmed COVID-19 cases and their close contacts.

The platform called Whispr will allow authorities to track the locations of COVID-19 cases and contacts, and correspond with them via text message.

Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the “sophisticated” system would help ensure people observe self-isolation requirements, or face penalties of up to $25,000 for individuals and $100,000 for businesses.

Drones are also on the horizon, with University of South Australia researchers developing a drone that can home in on coronavirus cases in crowds.

Drones are being used to combat the coronavirus. Photo: AAP

Originally intended for use in war zones and natural disasters, the drone can monitor temperature, heart and respiratory rate, and identify people sneezing or coughing in outdoor and indoor spaces.

Meanwhile, social media monolith Facebook, which has a long history of committing privacy sins against its users, has revealed it is “sharing aggregated and anonymised mobility data and high-resolution population density maps” to help researchers with “forecasting models for the spread of the virus”.

Emergency laws have bad habit of becoming permanent

Drastic measures may be necessary to combat the coronavirus, but Dr Marmo warned emergency rules introduced by governments have a bad habit of becoming permanent.

“Any kind of location data mechanism, including drone surveillance and phone tracking, needs to be considered in light of ethical standards and human rights,” she said.

Unfortunately, in the ‘eye of the storm’, we lose track of these matters but we need to remain vigilant.’’

Last week, Digital Rights Watch warned that personal privacy could become a casualty of COVID-19 if government is allowed to deploy “untested and intrusive surveillance technology on their population”.

“We are deeply concerned that government agencies in Australia will try to do the same here under cover of their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” Digital Rights Watch chairwoman Lizzie O’Shea said.

The current crisis must not be allowed to “be used to pass laws that give government agencies and private corporations a free pass to share data and carry out surveillance of the Australian public that will have a lasting impact after the emergency is over”, she said.

‘We will be living in a post-pandemic world’

Invasive surveillance measures implemented in response to COVID-19 risk permanently damaging our civil liberties, according to Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow in emerging technologies at Monash University.

Governments in Australia and around the world are using “powerful technological systems – whether bespoke or repurposed to track infected individuals, nudge behavioural changes, and control social vectors of contagion: People,” he said.

“These intrusive measures appear appropriate and justified, but we must be careful as the long-term consequences of allowing short-term ‘solutions’ to be applied unabated will mean that, even once the pandemic is alleviated, the crisis will never go away.”

Modern practices of mass surveillance and population management have their roots in public health and hygiene, Dr Sadowski said.

The severity of the coronavirus crisis means that “most people are likely to either agree with or be neutral towards” measures that circumvent civil liberties in an effort to halt the spread, he said.

Extreme curtailing of civil liberties through mass lockdowns and heightened surveillance is “likely to happen here in Australia”.

There’s no way that the world is going to go back to how it was before 2020, before COVID-19,’’ Dr Sadowski said.

“We will be living in a post-pandemic world.”

In order to tackle the coronavirus without imperilling our civil liberties we must “at the very, very least” ensure that emergency measures are subject to “extremely strict oversight and sunset clauses”, Dr Sadowski said.

“We must ensure that they are only used for specific purposes at a specific time, and then after that they evaporate.”

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