European countries are hollowing out hard-fought privacy standards as they embrace tech solutions to fight the coronavirus.
BRUSSELS — Chinese-style surveillance is coming to a neighborhood near you.
From drones barking orders at park-goers to tracing people’s movements through cellphones, Western governments are rushing to embrace sophisticated surveillance tools that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
In the European Union, home to the world’s strictest privacy regimen, leaders have taken the unprecedented step of asking telecoms companies to hand over mobile phone data so they can track population movements and try to stop the spread.
The European Commission has gone further, asking all such data to be centralized to speed up prevention across the bloc, three people involved in the talks told POLITICO. But epidemiologists argue that such efforts are only a first step: To be fully effective, some say, the EU will have to follow the example of South Korea and China and make infected people download an app that would reveal exactly where they go and whom they meet.
“It would be much more efficient [to stop the spread of the coronavirus] if everyone had the same app,” said Sune Lehmann Jørgensen, a professor at the Technical University of Denmark who is advising the government on how best to track the coronavirus. “But we shouldn’t just institute global surveillance. [The] 9/11 [attacks] showed us that in times of crisis, we can erode people’s rights.”
While governments seek out more effective tracking tools, companies best known for providing digital surveillance for security forces are proving only too happy to oblige. Some, like the Israeli NSO Group and facial recognition company Clearview AI, have barely emerged from controversies about their practices, while others, like U.S.-based Palantir, are closely linked to the intelligence and defense communities in the United States.
The race to embrace invasive tools underscores a simple dynamic at play during the current global pandemic: Public health concerns are trumping the desire to protect individuals’ privacy online and in the real world, even in the home of the General Data Protection Regulation, Europe’s sweeping privacy rules.
And so far, regulators and the public are largely standing by.
“The acceptance level for tracking is higher,” said Staffan Truvé, chief technology officer of cybersecurity intelligence firm Recorded Future. “Everyone feels at risk. The personal benefit of briefly giving up your privacy feels much bigger than with terrorist attacks.”
Just a few weeks ago, when the pandemic was still a distant fear, privacy advocates latched on to a clip of Chinese police ordering an elderly woman back into her home via drone-mounted loudspeaker as an example of Big Brother tactics gone awry.
Now, drones are deployed in Brussels, the heart of Europe’s institutional capital, to enforce social-distancing rules, and stay-at-home orders are being broadcast through the streets of German cities.
The speed with which such solutions have not just been rolled out, but also been largely accepted by anxious populations is prompting critics to warn of a danger to democracy. In Israel, the government last week approved sweeping new emergency surveillance powers that allow authorities to enforce quarantine orders and warn people about potentially infectious encounters.
Despite the potential for snooping and privacy breaches, the EU has said it would continue to approve the transfer of data about EU citizens to Israel. And some European lawmakers are already calling for similar surveillance powers closer to home.
In France, two conservative senators last week tabled an amendment that would authorize telecoms operators to collect health and location data on all mobile phone users for six months. It was defeated, but telecoms-to-government data transfers are happening on an ad hoc basis.
In Brussels, Thierry Breton, the EU’s Internal Markets Commissioner, has been at the forefront of efforts to get companies to share data. During a conference call with executives from telecoms giants, including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, the Frenchman asked them to hand over so-called metadata, or peripheral information stripped of individual identifiers, on millions of people’s mobile phones.
“The whole idea [in sharing mobile data with governments] is to be ahead of the curve,” said Frederic Pivetta, the founder of Dalberg, a data analytics firm that has been contracted by the Belgian government to use telecom data to map the spread of the coronavirus. “This exercise is meant to flatten the curve, so less people are going to be infected because you know where the infected people are today.”
As governments take similar steps across the EU, they can look to Norway for an example of how it can be implemented.
Telenor, the local carrier, has been sharing aggregated mobile data with scientists for three weeks, according to Arnoldo Frigessi, a statistician at the University of Oslo involved in the project. He said that his team had been able to track a roughly 60 percent drop in people moving between municipalities by tracking smartphone movements.
Credits to POLITICO Newsroom