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Police seize on COVID-19 tech to broaden international surveillance – The Washington Submit


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JERUSALEM — Majd Ramlawi was serving espresso in Jerusalem’s Outdated Metropolis when a chilling textual content message appeared on his telephone.

“You may have been noticed as having participated in acts of violence within the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” it learn in Arabic. “We are going to maintain you accountable.”

Ramlawi, then 19, was amongst a whole bunch of people that civil rights attorneys estimate acquired the textual content final 12 months on the peak of one of the vital turbulent latest intervals within the Holy Land. Many, together with Ramlawi, say they solely lived or labored within the neighborhood, and had nothing to do with the unrest. What he didn’t know was that the dreaded inside safety company, the Shin Guess, was utilizing mass surveillance know-how mobilized for coronavirus contact tracing towards Israeli residents and residents for functions completely unrelated to COVID-19.

Within the pandemic’s bewildering early days, tens of millions worldwide believed authorities officers who stated they wanted confidential knowledge for brand spanking new tech instruments that would assist cease coronavirus’ unfold. In return, governments acquired a firehose of people’ non-public well being particulars, pictures that captured their facial measurements and their dwelling addresses.

Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, The Related Press has discovered that authorities used these applied sciences and knowledge to halt journey for activists and odd folks, harass marginalized communities and hyperlink folks’s well being info to different surveillance and regulation enforcement instruments. In some instances, knowledge was shared with spy companies. The difficulty has taken on recent urgency nearly three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID insurance policies not too long ago ignited the sharpest and largest public rebuke of the nation’s authoritarian management because the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Sq. in 1989.

For greater than a 12 months, AP journalists interviewed sources and pored over 1000’s of paperwork to hint how applied sciences marketed to “flatten the curve” have been put to different makes use of. Simply because the stability between privateness and nationwide safety shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults, COVID-19 has given officers justification to embed monitoring instruments in society which have lasted lengthy after lockdowns.

–Israel’s Shin Guess safety company repurposed telephone surveillance know-how it had beforehand used to watch militants inside Palestinian territories to watch folks for COVID-19 contact tracing. Then, in 2021, the company quietly started utilizing the identical know-how to ship threatening messages to Arab residents and residents of Israel whom the company suspected of taking part in violent clashes with police. Among the recipients, nevertheless, merely lived or labored within the space, or have been mere passers-by.

–In China, the final main nation on the planet to implement strict COVID-19 lockdowns, residents have needed to set up cell-phone apps to maneuver about freely in most cities. Drawing from telecommunications knowledge and PCR check outcomes, the apps produce particular person QR codes that change from inexperienced to yellow or purple, relying on an individual’s well being standing. Now, as pandemic restrictions reduce, there’s proof that the well being codes have been used to stifle dissent. Residents who needed to lodge complaints towards the federal government out of the blue discovered their codes turning purple although they hadn’t examined optimistic for COVID-19 or been close to contaminated people.

–As early as Might 2020 in India, the police chief of Telangana state tweeted about his division rolling out synthetic intelligence-based software program utilizing CCTV to zero-in on folks not carrying masks. S Q Masood, a social activist, was among the many folks stopped seemingly at random by police in a predominantly Muslim space of Hyderabad final 12 months. Masood stated officers informed him to take away his masks so they might {photograph} him with a pill. He’s now suing police to search out out why. Though regulation enforcement denies utilizing facial recognition in Masood’s case, the lawsuit is continuous and specialists stated it could set precedent for future policing actions.

—In Australia, folks used apps to faucet their telephones towards QR codes at eating places, efficiency venues and different public areas to report their presence in order that they may very well be contacted in case a COVID-19 outbreak was linked to a spot they visited. However in a number of instances Australian regulation enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in knowledge as a kind of digital dragnet to analyze crimes. The follow got here regardless of authorities assurances that the knowledge could be used solely to advertise public well being.

–Lastly, within the U.S., the federal authorities used the pandemic as a chance to construct out its surveillance toolkit. It signed two contracts in 2020 value $24.9 million with the data-mining and surveillance firm Palantir Applied sciences Inc. to assist the Division of Well being and Human Providers’ pandemic response. Paperwork obtained by the immigrant rights group Simply Futures Regulation underneath the Freedom of Info Act and shared with the AP present that federal officers thought of integrating “identifiable affected person knowledge,” akin to psychological well being, substance use and behavioral well being info from group houses, shelters, jails, detox services and colleges. The U.S. Facilities for Illness Management doesn’t use any of that individual-level info within the platform CDC now manages, stated Kevin Griffis, a division spokesman.

“What COVID did was speed up state use of those instruments and that knowledge and normalize it, so it match a story about there being a public profit,“ stated John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher on the Toronto-based web watchdog Citizen Lab. “Now the query is, are we going to be able to having a reckoning round using this knowledge, or is that this the brand new regular?”

Former AP video journalist Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this report from Hyderabad, India. AP staffers Lori Hinnant contributed from Paris; Maria Verza from Mexico Metropolis; Astrid Suarez from Bogotá, Colombia; Edna Tarigan from Jakarta, Indonesia; Tong-hyung Kim from Seoul, South Korea; and Eileen Ng from Singapore. Daria Litvinova and retired Related Press Afghanistan and Pakistan Bureau Chief Kathy Gannon additionally contributed. Deputy Editor of The Mail & Guardian Athandiwe Saba assisted from Johannesburg. Burke reported from San Francisco; Federman from Jerusalem; McGuirk from Canberra, Australia; Pathi from Hyderabad, India; and Wu from Taipei, Taiwan.

This reporting was produced in collaboration with researcher Avani Yadav with assist from the Human Rights Middle Investigations Lab on the College of California, Berkeley. It was partially supported by the Pulitzer Middle on Disaster Reporting and by the Starling Lab for Digital Integrity, co-founded by the College of Southern California and Stanford College, the place Burke was a journalism fellow.

Comply with Garance Burke on Twitter at @garanceburke. Contact AP’s international investigative workforce at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/ideas/

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