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Electronic tagging has always been controversial. Today it is being touted in the name of health security. 

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, intrusive monitoring tools adopted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may further normalize the surveillance of individuals by governments and private entities. 

Governments have been promoting “wearables” (devices worn on the body) in their efforts to monitor and contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. But many such tools raise problems that may undermine the public health goals for which they are being adopted, and lead to unintended consequences for privacy, association and freedom of expression. 

Wearables can be mandated by the government or made voluntary (although apparently users don’t always understand exactly what it is they’re being asked to do). Wearables may contain an electronic sensor to collect health information (by measuring vital signs) which acts as an early warning to identify likely COVID-19 patients before they show any symptoms. They can also be used to detect and/or log people’s proximity to one another (to enforce social distancing) or between the wearable”and a person’s mobile phone or a stationary home beacon (to enforce quarantine). 

For quarantine enforcement, the devices might also use a GPS receiver to inform authorities of the wearer’s location. Some use Bluetooth radio beacons to let authorities confirm when the wearer is within range of a phone that is running a contact tracing app (rather than leaving the phone at home and going outside in violation of a health order). And some wearables may be low-tech wristbands carrying a QR code, which authorities may regularly ask the user to photograph with a mobile app. 

In Canada, a locally-developed Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contact tracing app is expected to be launched for testing this month. While federal and provincial officials have assured Canadians that the app will protect the privacy of those who download them, some experts and NGOs have expressed concern about possible risks.  

The app has the potential to create “a totally new class or form of surveillance,” said Christopher Parsons, a senior research associate at Citizen Lab, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.  

“Much has been made of the privacy protections built into the app, but we mustn’t lose sight of the reality that being asked by the state to allow our contacts with others to be traced pre-emptively is a significant, unprecedented ask,” said the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) in a statement to Radio Canada.  

“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that technology doesn’t go backwards, and there’s a real risk that if we take measures now that we consider necessary in the current state of emergency, it will be difficult to dial them back later unless the right legal, policy, and technical constraints are in place from the start,” the CCLA also said in a publication released during the pandemic titled “Privacy, Access to Information, and You: The COVID-19 Edition.” 

The global market for wearable devices is expected to top $52 billion by 2022, the allure being that smart watches and other wearables act as an extension of a smartphone. They give instant access to apps, email, text messages and the web. That raises questions. Who gets to see all or part of the data? How securely are data stored? How much is divulged in the name of national security? 

The technical term the U.S. government uses to refer to tracking its citizens’ movements is “physical activity surveillance.” Privacy is not a priority — and all the more so in other countries, such as China, where surveillance is aimed at state coercion and control. But hey, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! 

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...