In the 14th century when the world was ravaged by the Black Death, the port of Venice sent sailors from ships it feared were carrying plague to a nearby island for 40 days — the period was known as a “quarantinario” from the Italian word for forty and gave rise to the word quarantine. Two centuries later, the houses of plague victims in London were marked by blue crosses. Just one (healthy) person from an infected household was allowed out to buy food, and had to carry a white rod.
Those suspected of carrying the 21st century coronavirus (COVID-19) don’t have to use a white stick or blue cross to warn others away. Instead, as the virus spreads around the globe — reaching over 1mn confirmed cases worldwide in early April — methods of keeping people in quarantine and enforcing social distancing have moved on to the digital age. Governments in Central and Eastern Europe and elsewhere are using the latest technologies to enforce lockdowns and track anyone suspected of having the virus.
Poland, for example, has launched an app named Kwarantanna domowa (Home quarantine) to help police make sure people in quarantine stay at home. Anyone returning from abroad must go into home quarantine for two weeks and is either obliged to respond to police calls or download the app, the digital ministry said. The Kwarantanna domowa app uses a mobile location service and facial recognition, and sends random requests to users to take selfies, to which users must respond in 20 minutes or the app notifies the police.
“You will need to take one or several such photos a day. We will send requests for them 'by surprise'. The idea is exactly the same as for unannounced visits by police officers,” said Minister of Digitisation Marek Zagorski. The ministry included a reminder to users to make sure their phones are charged and to check their SMSs.
Poles breaking quarantine orders face fines of up to PLN30,000 (€6,540). That is almost six times the average gross wage in Poland in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Drones are another tool that have been used in a number of countries to monitor compliance with lockdowns. In the first such move in Croatia, the regional office of the Civil Protection Directorate in the town of Osijek — picked pre-pandemic for an early rollout of 5G services — has set up an aerial surveillance system using drones, state news agency Hina reported.
Russia has only recently reported large numbers of coronavirus cases — though there were a suspiciously large number of people suffering from pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses in Moscow hospitals earlier in the year — but the authorities drew up plans for a widespread outbreak as early as February. These included surveillance and contact tracing for anyone who tested positive, using facial recognition technology and mobile phone data.
In the last few days reports in the Russian media have revealed that an app is in the works to monitor the movements of Moscow citizens who have been placed under a strict lockdown ordered by mayor Sergey Sobyanin on March 29. Moscow residents are now only allowed to leave their residences to buy food and essential medicals, and may walk no further than 100 metres from their homes.
There are now plans to require residents of the Russian capital to register with a municipal website, and log in every time they want to leave their homes to give the reason. They then receive a unique barcode or code by SMS to show to the police if they are stopped. The authorities would also receive access to residents’ mobile geolocation data and financial transactions so their movements can be tracked, according to a summary of the plans from rights watchdog Human Rights Watch.
A beta version of the app was reportedly released via the Google Play store, sparking widespread criticism and questions about its legality and security.
While praising Moscow’s public information campaigns on hand washing and social distancing, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns that measures taken during lockdowns “need to be necessary, proportionate and lawful”.
“Under the proposed online pass system, once authorities have access to personal and geolocation data, and possibly also banking data, they could obtain other information about people’s private lives, associations and activities that do not serve the goal of containing and preventing the spread of COVID-19,” wrote Rachel Denber, deputy director of HRW’s Europe and Central Asia division, on April 1. “Russia’s troubling record on digital privacy raises significant concerns about potential abuse of the information collected under this programme.”
Debate rages over mobile data use
In fact, the debate as to whether and to what extent governments should be allowed to access mobile phone records, geolocation and other personal data in their quest to enforce lockdowns and curb the spread of the deadly virus is raging in countries around the world.
There are already reports that around 24 countries are already using mobile phone location tracking and 14 countries are using apps for contact tracing or quarantine enforcement.
In just a few examples from the Central and Eastern Europe region, Bulgarian police were authorised to request and obtain data from phone and internet communications to monitor people under compulsory quarantine; Armenian MPs voted to allow their government to collect mobile phone data, including locations and numbers called; and, Estonia’s statistics office has been instructed by the government to use mobile geolocation data from phone companies to study people's movements in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, though the data is not personalised.
In another instance, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has said the authorities are tracking people with Italian telephone numbers, as many of the initial cases in countries across Southeast Europe were among people returning to their home countries to flee Europe’s largest epidemic.
The Czech Republic, which has seen the worst coronavirus outbreak in Central Europe with 3,589 cases as of April 1, is piloting a “smart quarantine system” in South Moravia, inspired by the success of countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan in containing the spread of the virus. The system uses data from mobile phones and payment cards of people who have tested positive to coronavirus to track their movements and find all the people they could potentially have infected. However, unlike in some other countries, consent from participants will be required, and data will only be kept in the system for six hours.
In some countries there has already been a furious backlash. Slovakia adopted a law in March that allows the Public Health Office to use location data from mobile phones to track people ordered to stay in quarantine. After an angry public response the new government — led by the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OLaNO) that was voted in on an anti-corruption platform — clarified that only limited amounts of data would be collected and the information would be used only in connection with fighting the coronavirus.
In Lithuania, a government bill aimed at allowing state institutions to track the locations of self-isolated and quarantined people has also drawn criticism, with opposition politicians warning of the scope for surveillance of the population with implications for human rights.
A good time to be a dictator
There are already broader concerns that ruling politicians are taking advantage of the need to restrict some freedoms to enforce quarantine and social distancing during the pandemic for their own ends. Rights watchdogs have stressed that any such measures should be limited in time and targeted specifically at preventing infection.
Aside from Russia, strict lockdowns under which citizens are banned from going out except to go to work, buy essential groceries or visit their doctor — and some such as the elderly have been forbidden to go out at all — have been imposed in countries including Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Serbia.
Of particular concern are the sweeping new powers assumed by the Hungarian government after the parliament approved legislation to allow the government to extend the state of emergency without a time limit and granted it power to rule by decree as long as the state of emergency is in place. This led critics to claim that Hungary’s “illiberal democrat” leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban had just created the EU’s first dictatorship.
But the new technologies available today mean that governments have unprecedented scope to monitor their populations’ movements. When employing digital surveillance to fight the COVID-19 pandemic governments should respect human rights, a joint statement from joint statement from HRW, Amnesty International, Access Now, Privacy International and 103 other organisations said on April 2.
“COVID-19 is an unprecedented health crisis, but governments must not use the virus as cover to introduce invasive or pervasive digital surveillance,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at HRW. “Any surveillance measures must have a legal basis, be narrowly tailored to meet a legitimate public health goal, and contain safeguards against abuse.”