States' use of digital technology to combat the pandemic must respect human rights

«I am profoundly concerned by certain countries' adoption of emergency powers that are unlimited and not subject to review. In a few cases, the epidemic is being used to justify repressive changes to regular legislation, which will remain in force long after the emergency is over.»
– UN high Commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is a global problem which has forced the states to take urgent measures to stop the spread of the disease. Many citizens are concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and forced quarantine measures. To improve the situation, many states have decided to restrict fundamental human rights, including digital rights and the right to movement.

We consider that the compliance with digital rights is crucial for respecting the right to privacy, private and family life, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and other human rights regardless of the scope of the emergency. The balance between the respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms and the restrictive measures has critical importance for preserving the mental and emotional health of the people, ensuring a sense of security, and reducing social tension in the society.

Modern technologies should be seen as supportive measures for freedom of communication, and simplifying responses to the coronavirus pandemic which may pose risks of human rights violations. Therefore we call on the states to use technologies to track the movement of citizens (invasive tracking technologies) only in accordance with international human rights law. Such a guarantee of the legitimate use of technologies enables to prevent violations and reduces the number of administrative and criminal cases in this field.

New opportunities for the states as a result of improving technologies and the ability to access information about the geolocation of mobile devices can be a threat to privacy, freedom of movement, choice of residence and freedom of assembly, and can undermine public trust in authorities.

The decisions by the states that restrict fundamental human rights, including digital rights, will affect the future and as a result the life and health of current and future generations.

Recognizing the potential risk of human rights violations, expressing extreme concern about the growing number of restrictions on digital rights and aiming to help in the combat against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, we call on the states to guarantee compliance with the following principles:

States should provide each citizen with the right to refuse to use invasive technologies for tracking and processing collected data obtained through such technologies. In case of a consent to use tracking technology, such a consent must be informed, voluntary, concrete and subject to review.

Restrictions on digital rights, including the use of tracking technology, must be implemented only in accordance with the law. The necessity for such restrictions should be proportionate and clear. Restrictions should be enshrined in law with an aim to preserve the health of the citizens. If the state intends to conclude an agreement on the provision of personal data of citizens to other organizations of the public or commercial sector, such an agreement should be based solely on the law, take into account the possible consequences of human rights violations and be published to inform the public.

The state must openly report on the measures it has taken to limit rights and their consequences, conduct appropriate statistical studies of such applications to timely change, refuse or cancel unacceptable measures. If necessary, independent experts and specialists should be involved in evaluating the application of measures, including their effectiveness in order to prevent misuse, taking into account the need to maintain confidentiality about the private life of people.

If it becomes necessary to restrict digital rights, such restrictions should be introduced for a limited period of time and act solely to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. It is unacceptable to use coronavirus as an excuse to indefinitely restrict the rights of citizens.

Governments must guarantee that the collection, accumulation and storage of citizen’s personal data, including health data, is carried out only to prevent the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. The use of the collected, accumulated and stored data should be limited to a certain period of time and the goal of combating the spread of infection, excluding the purpose of commercial and other use.

The collected data should be immediately deleted after a specified time period and the achievement of relevant goals.

States should take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the collected personal data (location, movement, images, etc.), ensuring a sufficient level of security, including when using any devices, applications, networks and services that collect, transmit, process or store data.

Digital rights restrictions cannot target exclusively vulnerable groups. Restrictions should not affect any groups of people solely on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, religion and other protected characteristics.

Decision making on the collected personal data must not be exclusively the responsibility of law enforcement agencies, but also requires the participation of interested members of civil society, especially when decision making restricts the rights of citizens. Participation of civil society can help to avoid abuse and provide an opportunity to prevent violations of citizen’s rights and freedoms.

To implement these principles we call on interested citizens and public organizations to work together to preserve the priority role of fundamental human rights.