AP: You'll never guess what governments are doing with all of that pandemic tracking tech!

Wanna bet?

I’m so old that I remember when media outlets would have considered “extreme” any allegations that governments would abuse pandemic-tracking tools. And yet, here we have the Associated Press reporting its scoop today that reveals precisely that outcome. After first insisting that individual privacy had to be set aside in an emergency, the AP seems shocked, shocked to find that governments like being able to track and snoop on its subjects — er, citizens:


In the pandemic’s bewildering early days, millions worldwide believed government officials who said they needed confidential data for new tech tools that could help stop coronavirus’ spread. In return, governments got a firehose of individuals’ private health details, photographs that captured their facial measurements and their home addresses.

Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, The Associated Press has found that authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies. The issue has taken on fresh urgency almost three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID policies recently ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the country’s authoritarian leadership since the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For more than a year, AP journalists interviewed sources and pored over thousands of documents to trace how technologies marketed to “flatten the curve” were put to other uses. Just as the balance between privacy and national security shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has given officials justification to embed tracking tools in society that have lasted long after lockdowns.

This seems so obvious that it almost goes without saying. Once you allow the camel’s nose into the tent, the rest of the camel follows immediately after. And the smell with it.


The AP spends a lot of time on China, but Beijing’s tyranny began long before COVID arrived. The Xi Jinping had begun integrating its tech tools, surveillance systems, and domestic intelligence into a “social credit” system that virtually locked down its populations years prior to the physical lockdowns that finally produced a revolt this year.

More interestingly, the AP takes note of the same encroaching domestic surveillance in other nations, countries with democratic values such as India, Israel, and Australia, which had some of the harshest lockdown measures in the Western world. Their use of health apps turns out to be more like Big Brother, too:

During two years of strict border controls, Australia’s conservative former Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the extraordinary step of appointing himself minister of five departments, including the Department of Health. Authorities introduced both national and state-level apps to notify people when they had been in the vicinity of someone who tested positive for the virus.

But the apps were also used in other ways. Australia’s intelligence agencies were caught “incidentally” collecting data from the national COVIDSafe app. News of the breach surfaced in a November 2020 report by the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, which said there was no evidence that the data was decrypted, accessed or used. The national app was canceled in August by a new administration as a waste of money: it had identified only two positive COVID-19 cases that wouldn’t have been found otherwise.

At the local level, people used apps to tap their phones against a site’s QR code, logging their individual ID so that if a COVID-19 outbreak occurred, they could be contacted. The data sometimes was used for other purposes. Australian law enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in data as a sort of electronic dragnet to investigate crimes.


And let’s not think for a moment that the US maintained a pristine and inviolable wall for the use of its own tracking systems. It’s still not clear how much those tools were used beyond their stated purpose, but it’s clear that such use was on the table:

In the U.S., which relied on a hodge-podge of state and local quarantine orders to ensure compliance with COVID rules, the federal government took the opportunity to build out its surveillance toolkit, including two contracts in 2020 worth $24.9 million to the data mining and surveillance company Palantir Technologies Inc. to support the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ pandemic response. Documents obtained by the immigrant rights group Just Futures Law under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with AP showed that federal officials contemplated how to share data that went far beyond COVID-19.

The possibilities included integrating “identifiable patient data,” such as mental health, substance use and behavioral health information from group homes, shelters, jails, detox facilities and schools.

The AP’s team leaves it there, but it’s also not the only context in which we see how pretexts for intrusions into privacy have been abused. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security used a national freak-out over Russian “disinformation” efforts to effectively censor public speech and debate on Twitter and Facebook, the extent of which we’re only now discovering. In both situations, the government and/or its agencies declared emergencies, used the panic to arrogate power, and then used it for their own purposes far beyond what they claimed to need for the emergency itself.


It’s amusing to see the Associated Press report this as if it were an irony or an unexpected outcome. For their shock, shock that governments would abuse emergency powers and tools, they win today’s Captain Louis Renault Award. And maybe we should pass around a copy of 1984 to anyone who finds this story surprising in the least.

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