COVID-19 and Digital Rights

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)

An array of laptops, each with a virus image, except three, which have an icon for EFF's main issues: free speech, privacy and innovation.

Many of our digital rights are impacted by COVID-19. Now more than ever, EFF is dedicated to ensuring that technology supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all the people of the world.

Surveillance. Governments around the world are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers that many hope will contain the virus’ spread. But many of these powers would invade our privacy, inhibit our free speech, and disparately burden vulnerable groups of people. Mindful of the stakes, we ask three questions when analyzing proposals that would provide greater surveillance powers to the government: Would the proposal work? Would it excessively intrude on our freedoms? Are there sufficient safeguards? Different proposals raise different issues. For example:

  • We oppose dragnet surveillance of the general public to identify infected people. This includes dragnet surveillance cameras in public places that use face recognition or thermal imaging, and mounting such technologies on drones.

  • We oppose monitoring quarantine of COVID-19 patients with ankle GPS shackles or compulsion to download tracking apps.

  • We oppose giving police officers access to any COVID-19 public health data, including the addresses of people who tested positive.

  • We oppose immunity passports and verified credentials of test results. Gatekeeping systems that require people to present a digital token of supposed health in order to enter various spaces are a worrisome step towards national digital identification.

  • We oppose expanded surveillance by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services of people tested for COVID-19 and their families.

  • We oppose automated contact tracing based on phone location data. It is insufficiently granular to identify when two people were close enough together to transmit the virus, but it will expose where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing.

  • Bluetooth proximity is the most promising approach so far to automated COVID tracking. But no app will work absent widespread testing and interview-based contact tracing. Any app needs rigorous security testing and data minimization. No one should be forced to use it.

  • Any use of aggregate location data to inform public health decisions need strict safeguards.

Many new government surveillance programs are being built in partnership with corporations that hold vast stores of consumers’ personal data. We need new laws to protect our data privacy.

Free Speech. The free flow of ideas about COVID-19 is vital. This includes anonymous whistle-blowing about containment efforts, online criticisms of government responses to the crisis, and prisoner access to social media to tell the world about outbreaks behind bars. Governments will inevitably abuse any new powers to censor what they deem false information about the virus. When online platforms increase their reliance on automated content moderation, in part because human moderators cannot safely come to work, those moderation “decisions” must be temporary, transparent, and easily appealable. Platforms should take into account the Santa Clara Principles for transparent and accountable content moderation. We are troubled by Facebook’s plan to limit speech about public protests.

Innovation. New technologies and ideas can help address the public health crisis. We must have free and open access to scientific knowledge about the virus. Tinkerers should be able to fix medical devices, and have easy online access to repair manuals. Open innovation in medical technology will save lives. The federal government should exercise its power to stop patent trolls from endangering COVID-19 testing and treatment, and should not increase patent terms for technologies related to this health crisis.

Fiber For All. Social distancing is causing many of us to spend more time on the Internet. But not all Americans have fast and competitively-priced Internet access. So EFF is advocating for federal and state laws to redouble efforts to build better broadband for everyone. You can take action to support these bills.

Government transparency. Government decision-making about the virus must be transparent. When governments temporarily close the physical spaces where they make decisions, for purposes of social distancing, they must adopt new transparency accommodations, such as broadcasting their proceedings. While government responses to public records requests may be slower during this public health crisis, the outbreak is no excuse to shut them down altogether.

Living More Online. We need better online access to books. As we rely on more online tools to make working from home and distance learning possible, Internet users should update their surveillance self-defense knowledge, for example, to make informed decisions about using online meeting tools, organizing online mutual aid efforts, and avoiding Coronavirus phishing. We need stronger protection from “Bossware” that snoops on every mouse click in our home offices. Although musicians are under real financial stress due to the virus, mandatory automated filters to identify alleged copyright infringement are not the answer.

Protest During COVID-19. People attending demonstrations during the pandemic should take special surveillance self-defense precautions. Police investigating protesters must not have access to COVID-19 public health information.