New categories of digital rights violations. April review


RosKomSvoboda together with project partners PandemicBigBrother continue to monitor digital rights violations around the world in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

First, we added new categories of rights violations to the map: 

  • Drone control;
  • Administrative and criminal prosecution (meaning punishment for public statements about coronavirus in the media and social networks);
  • Restriction of access to official information (concealment of reliable data on the number of cases in the country, or other important information directly related to the spread of coronavirus by the authorities).

Second, one of the most famous international digital human rights defenders, Access Now, a non-profit organization, and the Agora International Human Rights Group, joined us as partners. Together we sent appeals to the heads of all Russian regions with proposals to guarantee the destruction of Russian citizens’ personal data collected as part of the quarantine. Within the law’s framework data must be destroyed within 30 days of the date of achieving the processing goal. 

April 2020 observations

Drone monitoring and control

In this category, all cases where states use drones to monitor and (or) alert citizens are taken into account for consideration.

For the first time, China took such a measure at the very beginning of the epidemic and informed residents of the neсessity to stay home to prevent the spread of the disease. Later, this idea was picked up by other countries in Asia and Europe. 

At the end of March, authorities began to use drones in Belgium, Italy, Spain, France, Malaysia, the UAE, and Australia to monitor those in self-isolation. In April, Germany, Kazakhstan, the USA, Great Britain, Albania, Russia, and Greece joined them. In some countries, drone assistance is used to monitor social distance only in specific regions; in Kazakhstan, they are used only in the capital Nur-Sultan, while in Russia, the streets of St. Petersburg and the Udmurt Republic are monitored this way.

Video surveillance and facial recognition

In the usual sense, there is video surveillance everywhere (Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, India, and Kazakhstan); less often, there are systems with facial recognition (Russia and China), and only units with the compilation of protocols and fines based on erroneous data. Earlier on, experts warned about possible system errors in such video surveillance systems.

In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, a court fined a local resident for 15 thousand rubles for violation of quarantine, on the basis of data from surveillance cameras. The absurdity of the situation is that a woman looks only 61% like a quarantine violator, but the court did not take this into account.

A unique system of fines based on data from CCTV cameras was invented in Moscow. Now cameras that record a violation of traffic rules also track the presence of digital passes. Several residents in the capital have already received fines.

Mobile phone surveillance

Previously, we wrote about authorities and telecommunications operators cooperation, and the transfer of data on subscribers’ geolocation. Here we pay attention to cases whereby people who did not give permission to access their mobile phones, risk being fined for non-compliance with the rules of self-isolation.

Earlier, a system of SMS passes had already been introduced in one of the Russian regions, the Republic of Tatarstan. There, it was necessary to send an SMS with personal data and the purpose of exit to a short number before leaving the house.

We have recently discovered the existence of a similar system in Azerbaijan. Residents of the country need to call a special number or send an SMS each time, explaining the purpose

of leaving before going outside. All collected data is transmitted to police officers, and they have the right to stop a person and check the presence of an SMS pass.

Surveillance through government services

Here we put together cases of countries that launched their own government applications to monitor the health of patients under surveillance and monitor their compliance with quarantine, as well as the services designed to obtain digital passes to leave the house during the self-isolation period.

In the second half of April, Apple and Google announced the launch of their own services for tracking movements. The companies also said that they will soon integrate this technology into their devices, and users will be able to activate this feature on a voluntary basis.

Germany, which previously took the initiative to create a pan-European PEPP-PT standard for tracking contacts, announced the refusal of its plans in favor of the technology being developed by Apple and Google.

In contrast, Britain and France insist on a centralized path and continue to develop their own applications for tracking the movements of people and their circle of contacts. 

In the second half of April, Canada and Japan announced imminent launchs of monitoring applications. These countries are marked in yellow on the map, since measures have not yet been taken, and the available information indicates only the prerequisites for surveillance.

While some countries take a democratic approach, where the installation of surveillance applications is advisory and is carried out only on a voluntary basis (Czech Republic, Australia), the mayor of Moscow ordered the expansion of the digital surveillance of the city’s residents if they had SARS symptoms, and took the initiative to introduce digital passes through the state service throughout Russia.

Last week it became known that the digital pass platform developed by the Ministry of Digital Affairs will be introduced in 21 constituent entities of the Russian Federation.

Restriction of freedom of speech online

This category contains cases of restrictions to access websites and warnings to owners of Internet resources about the need to delete the information that, in the opinion of local authorities, is false.

In the second half of April, we found these restrictions in the following countries:

  • Singapore: the law against fake news obliges residents to amend their publications if information is incorrect;
  • Egypt: blocking access to websites and pages on social networks where fake information is published;
  • Tunisia: legislation drafted to fight fake news; and
  • Kyrgyzstan: independent media have lost accreditation to work during the state of emergency in the country.

Administrative and criminal prosecution

In addition to the previously discovered cases of punishment for posting fakes on social networks, harsh punishments concerning these issues also rose to the top in Commonwealth of Independent States countries (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan), Asia (Mongolia, India, Indonesia, Hong Kong), Africa (Uganda, Botswana), as well as Palestine and Saudi Arabia. In these countries, the publication of inaccurate information can result in a fine and detention for up to 5 years.

Cases of prosecution for fake publications about coronavirus on social networks are also observed in the United States, but if in other countries people are punished for (possibly) truthful information that the authorities want to hide, then people deliberately publish fakes there, knowing about harmful consequences this can lead to. There is even a separate term coined for such people - "covidiot".

Restriction of access to official information

So far, we have only been able to detect such a case in Belarus, thanks to our partners Human Constanta. There, for unknown reasons, the official resource hid statistics on the spread of coronavirus across the country. But we are sure that this is far from the only case. For example, there are no cases recorded in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and North Korea according to official statistics, while neighbouring countries are taking all kinds of measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

We remind you that you can always send us news about digital rights violations worldwide to [email protected]