Image: Chris Yang/Unsplash

Using smartphones to track and trace during the COVID-19 pandemic creates a smokescreen for wider surveillance measures that may infringe on people’s right to privacy. 

Human rights activists are concerned that such data can be used to discriminate against migrants and refugees, and on racial grounds. 

The “Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” (United Nations, November 2020) is categorical: 

“Governments and UN agencies are developing and using emerging digital technologies in ways that are uniquely experimental, dangerous, and discriminatory in the border and immigration enforcement context. By so doing, they are subjecting refugees, migrants, stateless persons and others to human rights violations, and extracting large quantities of data from them on exploitative terms that strip these groups of fundamental human agency and dignity.”

The focus of the report is the prevalence of digital technologies in immigration and border enforcement. Some commentators are referring to the rise of “digital borders” — meaning those whose infrastructure and processes increasingly rely on machine learning, automated algorithmic decision-making systems, predictive analytics and related digital technologies. 

In an interview with The Guardian last month, the UN special rapporteur Tendayi Achiume said:

“One of the key messages of the report is that we have to be paying very close attention to the disparate impact of this technology and not just assuming that because it’s technology, it’s going to be fair or be neutral or objective in some way.”

The article noted that COVID-19 has resulted in an acceleration of “biosurveillance” — tracking people’s movements and health. Citing the “Covi-Pass,” a health passport developed by Mastercard and Gavi (a private-public health alliance, being tried out in several African countries), the UN report criticised the potential impact of such passports on freedom of movement, especially for refugees. 

Canada should not introduce these so-called “immunity passports,” because they would create “a novel kind of biological divide between the haves and have-nots,” argues Françoise Baylis, a Dalhousie University research professor, and Natalie Kofler, a molecular biologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, in a column for CBC. “This kind of injustice would not only create increased economic inequity, but could also incentivize problematic behaviours on the part of those without immunity passports.”

They also note that introducing immunity passports could also create

“a formal, state-sanctioned opportunity for law enforcement to stop and question innocent individuals. For members of certain racialized groups, there would be an increased risk of police carding, something that is already a serious problem for Canadian communities of colour and First Nations peoples.”

The UN special rapporteur has proposed a structural and intersectional human rights law approach to the design and use of emerging digital technologies. It emphasises the scope of legally prohibited racial discrimination in their design and use; current obligations to prevent and combat racial discrimination; and obligations to provide effective remedies for racial discrimination. 

It’s clear that civil society groups need to monitor the ways digital technologies are being applied in humanitarian crises and elsewhere in order to challenge discrimination and injustice. 

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The Right to Communicate in Practice (2004); Communicating Peace: Entertaining Angels Unawares (2008); and Public Memory, Public Media, and the Politics of Justice (ed. with Pradip N. Thomas) (2012). WACC Global is an international NGO that promotes communication as a basic human right, essential to people’s dignity and community. 

Image: Chris Yang/Unsplash 

Philip Lee

Philip Lee is WACC general secretary and editor of its international journal Media Development. His edited publications include The Democratization of Communication (1995), Many Voices, One Vision: The...