High-tech tools to combat COVID-19 pose rights risks, Experts warn


In an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, a range of technologies that posed a threat to individual digital rights and privacy is being deployed across Europe, a report warned on Tuesday.

From tracking apps to infrared cameras, the use of such tools should not be rushed despite the urgency surrounding the pandemic, said the report by Germany’s Algorithm Watch, a digital rights group, and Bertelsmann Foundation.

“Securing public health can and must be compatible with democratic checks and balances,” said Fabio Chiusi, project manager with Algorithm Watch, in a statement.

“(COVID-19) may be used to justify the uncritical adoption of tools and policies that risk undermining human rights,” he said.

The research traced technology in use across 16 European countries, including telephone apps to track viral contacts, facial recognition systems that scan social distancing in crowds and infrared cameras that measure body temperature.

Many of these tools being touted as weapons in the battle against the virus have not been rigorously tested, especially for use in a pandemic, the report said.

Error rates in facial recognition systems spike by 50% when they involve people wearing facial masks, according to a recent study by the UN National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Thermal imaging technology designed to detect fevers also is prone to error, yet such scanners are rapidly being put to use in European supermarkets, stadiums and museums, said the report by Algorithm Watch and Bertelsman.

In France, infrared cameras are being used in public schools and city halls to measure the temperatures of passers-by, while the Italian city of Como has installed dozens of facial recognition cameras to monitor crowds for social distancing violations, it said.

In Spain sports spectators are being scanned by a system that detects anyone with a body temperature above 37º C, the report said.

Some European governments are not heeding recommendations by the World Health Organization that COVID-tracking technology be voluntary, it also said.

In Poland for example, citizens are forced to download a government app that uses geolocation and facial recognition to enforce quarantine orders. The report also cautioned against proposed “immunity passport” systems, in which people would be able to obtain a certificate or demonstrate to an app that they are virus-free.

Such systems, being tested in Britain and in Estonia, could lead to discrimination and exclusion, especially if authorities or employers could have access to the content of the passports, it said.

“Technologies are no panacea in themselves,” said Sarah Fischer, project manager at Bertelsmann, in a statement. (Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation)