Governments around the world are using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to introduce new surveillance tools, erode online privacy, and restrict free speech.
“The pandemic is accelerating society’s reliance on digital technologies at a time when the Internet is becoming less and less free,” warns Michael J. Abramowitz, president of research institute Freedom House. “Without adequate safeguards for privacy and the rule of law, these technologies can be easily repurposed for political repression.”
Free speech and Internet privacy have been declining worldwide for 10 consecutive years, reports Freedom House in a new assessment, and COVID-19 has accelerated that trend.
Even in the United States, Twitter and Facebook have started to intentionally block articles from mainstream news outlets.
“The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating a dramatic decline in global Internet freedom,” writes Adrian Shabaz of Freedom House. “State and nonstate actors in many countries are now exploiting opportunities created by the pandemic to shape online narratives, censor critical speech, and build new technological systems of social control.”
Foremost among these actors is Beijing, which has used the pandemic to ramp up its already-draconian surveillance measures and online censorship.
As noted in the report, China and other countries have been downplaying or censoring unfavorable COVID-19 coverage since the beginning of the outbreak. At least 28 countries have censored independent reporting and at least 45 countries have arrested, detained, or harassed online critics.
During the first four months of 2020, China’s Internet regulation agency locked or deleted roughly 800 websites and 33,000 social media accounts/chat groups for sharing information the government deemed ‘unfavorable’ or ‘problematic.’ Rumor has it that China has unleashed thousands of bots to scrub ‘sensitive’ information about COVID-19 and to post comments praising the Chinese government.
“The pandemic is normalizing the sort of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese Communist Party has long sought to mainstream,” notes Freedom House.
The report also identified 20 nations that had imposed new restrictions on speech during the pandemic, including laws restricting misinformation. The most severe example is Zimbabwe, where sharing misinformation about COVID-19 is now punishable with up to 20 years in prison.
An additional 13 countries were found to have implemented shutdowns on Internet and phone services, effectively preventing entire populations from learning about the pandemic and how to limit its spread.
Pakistan was identified as one of 30 nations that have used the pandemic as an excuse to start collecting massive amounts of telecom data for surveillance with few restrictions. In some cases, this effort is being carried out in tandem with military agencies.
A prime example is the smartphone app several nations are using to track the spread of COVID from one person to another. This app is also used to enforce quarantines and to monitor individuals’ health. For some populations, the app is mandatory.
As Freedom House researcher Adrian Shahbaz warns, “History has shown that technologies and laws adopted during a crisis tend to stick around. As with 9/11, we will look back on COVID-19 as a moment when governments gained new, intrusive powers to control their populations.”
Some experts predict China’s censorship industry will grow to employ up to one million workers by 2025.
Freedom House is a digital rights champion and think-tank financed by the US government. Its global assessment on Internet privacy included 65 countries and was published October 14th.
Author’s Note: China’s use of COVID-19 to enhance surveillance supports the belief that China released the virus on purpose. I wouldn’t be surprised if this pandemic is the final step in China’s plan to implement a social credit system wherein all individuals are monitored 24/7 and given scores based on conduct and behavior.