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Combatting coronavirus abroad sparks privacy concerns

Measures to track patients in the fight against the coronavirus around the world have alarmed anti-surveillance advocates.

Countries like South Korea, Russia and Italy are reportedly hoarding vast troves of data via facial recognition technology, mobile phones and credit cards to track movements of patients who’ve tested positive and potential residents with whom they could have come in close contact.

“There’s always an ‘important’ justification for surveillance — whether it’s fighting crime, fighting terrorism or fighting this pandemic,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a New York City-based nonprofit

“But there are also real consequences to our civil rights under what we allow under an emergency to move forward without real oversight,” he said.

When residents are infected in South Korea, officials tap into phone and credit card data to blast an alert to anyone who was nearby in recent days, The New York Times reported. Police use GPS apps to make sure those ordered to quarantine are actually following suit.

Officials in Lombardy, Italy, used mobile phone data to track how many people were obeying the government ordered lockdown, as well, local media reported. Russia authorities, meanwhile, have boasted of facial recognition tools they’re allegedly using to keep patients quarantined indoors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pledged it doesn’t retain and personally identifying information from those who visit its site or use its mobile app.

“CDC will not disclose, give, sell, or transfer any personal information about visitors to our websites unless required by law enforcement or by statute,” the public health agency posted on its website outlining data use.

In New York, Cahn said STOP is thus far most concerned with a newly enacted state law that grants Gov. Andrew Cuomo virtually full autonomy during the pandemic.

The group has raised red flags over the state’s call for volunteers to create a “technology SWAT team” with “impactful solutions and skilled tech employees.”

“It is completely unclear how these teams will be deployed and whether they will be supporting backend logistics for health care centers — something that is completely understandable — or whether they will be engaging in data collection practices as we’ve seen in China, Korea and elsewhere,” Cahn said.