Pandemic Provided Catalyst for Surges in Government Mass Surveillance: German NGO

By Todd Crawford | December 28, 2021
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ATHENS, GREECE - FEB. 10: Greek university students clash with riot police during a demonstration against government plans to set up university police, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic on Feb. 10, 2021 in Athens, Greece. (Image: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

In a report published in Dec. 2021 by AlgorithmWatch, a nonprofit organization based out of Germany, it has been revealed how automated decision-making (ADM) systems, driven by advanced artificial intelligence algorithms, were deployed by numerous governments across the globe to clandestinely track and monitor its populations. 

In the report titled “Tracing the Tracers 2021 Report: Automating COVID Responses” AlgorithmWatch details how numerous countries including, Greece, and Poland, among others, “adopted with almost no transparency, no evidence of their efficacy, no adequate safeguards, and insufficient democratic debate,” ADM systems to track its populations citing public health concerns as justification.

Greece

In Greece, authorities utilized “simple SMS services to advanced data analytics tools and machine learning (ML) algorithms,” during two lockdown periods in 2020 and 2021.

During these times people were only authorized to leave their homes for specific reasons and were required to notify authorities if they left their homes by sending an SMS to 13033, a service run by the Hellenic Ministry of Citizen Protection.

More than 885 million SMSs were sent during the two lock down periods. The increased surveillance prompted the civil society organization, Homo Digitalis, to file a complaint against the Hellenic Ministry of Citizen Protection via the Hellenic Data Protection Authority (DPA). 

The complainant asserted that “the SMS service was not in compliance with the GDPR,” and that inadequate information was provided as to how authorities were utilizing and protecting the personal data it was collecting,

Greece also implemented an advanced machine learning (ML) algorithm dubbed “Eva.”

Upon entering the country, travelers were required to complete a questionnaire which collected information such as the travelers name, age, and gender  “as well as information about the travelers’ permanent country of residence and previously visited countries,” that was then fed into the Eva algorithm.  Greek authorities justified the collection of data as a means to screen incoming travelers so that Greek authorities could assess whether the traveler should be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival. 

The Hellenic Union of Computer Scientists raised concerns about the use of the algorithm. Eva was supplied to the Greek government pro bono by “a group of scientists who wanted to assist the Greek authorities.” The union argued that the adoption of Eva was not a result of “an open public procurement procedure… [and] without prior evaluation and no guarantee that it would be effective at an operational level.” Despite these concerns Greek authorities forged ahead with the untested technology. 

Poland

“In Poland one of the first responses to the challenges of the pandemic was the use of technology,” the report reads.

Like other governments around the world, Poland implemented quarantine requirements for close contacts and people infected with the COVID-19 virus. The government financed the development of applications to monitor people staying in quarantine as well as a tracking program “to control entrepreneurs who received government support because their ability to work was restricted…”

In the Polish city of Gdynia, authorities went as far as to implement a “city monitoring system that included rapid identification of large concentrations of people.”

The code was placed on Github (a popular code sharing platform) however following a test phase the monitoring function was abandoned. 

Polish authorities also authorized the development of an app called the Home Quarantine app and made the installation and use of the app a “legal obligation for those who have to undergo quarantine.”

The use of the app was to unburden police officers who were tasked with checks on people quarantining at home.  

Police in Northern Poland said that, “Every day police officers in the Pomeranian province have to supervise the course of quarantine of more than 24,000 people, which is a really demanding and time-consuming challenge.”

The app was plagued with problems resulting in the app receiving a one star rating on popular app depositories like the Google Play Store. 

Canada

Absent from AlgorithmWatch’s report, Canada’s public health agency admitted that it tracked 33 million mobile devices during a COVID-19 lockdown in the country without authorization from the users. 

“The Public Health Agency of Canada accessed location data from 33 million mobile devices to monitor people’s movement during lockdown,” The National Post Reported. 

Canada has a population of just over 38 million people. 

A spokesperson for Canada’s health agency told the National Post that “due to the urgency of the pandemic, (PHAC) collected and used mobility data, such as cell-tower location data, throughout the COVID-19 response.”

The agency said it used the data to ascertain the effectiveness of public lockdown measures and to allow the Agency to “understand possible links between movement of populations within Canada and [the] spread of COVID-19.”

The Agency intends to track population movement in Canada for the next five years citing other public health issues such as “other infectious diseases, chronic disease prevention and mental health.”

Privacy advocates were quick to raise concerns. 

David Lyon, author of Pandemic Surveillance and former director of the Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen’s University, said in an email to the National Post, “I think that the Canadian public will find out about many other such unauthorized surveillance initiatives before the pandemic is over—and afterwards.” 

Alarmingly Lyon warned that PHAC “uses the same kinds of ‘reassuring’ language as national security agencies use, for instance not mentioning possibilities for re-identifying data that has been ‘de-identified.’”

Lyon urged the need for  more information regarding “exactly what was done, what was achieved and whether or not it truly served the interest of Canadian citizens.”

Martin French, an associate professor of Concordia University noted in an email to the National Post that “Evidence is coming in from many sources, from countries around the world, that what was seen as a huge surveillance surge — post 9/11 — is now completely upstaged by pandemic surveillance.”