The Wuhan coronavirus crisis uncovers the capacity of mass surveillance of states | Technology


Know who has been in contact with those affected by the Wuhan coronavirus It is key to stop the contagion. And for this it is essential that the authorities know where the sick people were before being placed in quarantine. Just a few years ago, tracing where a virus had spread was an almost impossible task. But today there is a device that allows you to automate the location of people with little margin of error: your mobile phone. A device that also does not lie or forget.

The use of location data by governments has traditionally been somewhat mysterious. Technically it can be done, but it is not so clear how it is done or how often. China has always been several steps ahead in mass surveillance, but now it even boasts in its means of its capacity and improvement. However, countries such as Australia or South Korea have also demonstrated in this health crisis the ease with which a State can look where the owner of a telephone number has gone. The tacit acceptance that everything goes before an emergency like the coronavirus is another step in the resignation that the movements of our lives are available to the authorities.

The acceptance that everything goes before an emergency like the coronavirus is another step in resignation

In January, a couple of Chinese from Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, arrived in Adelaide (Australia). They were 60 years old and had visited relatives. Both tested positive for the coronavirus. The health authorities did not clarify where they had gone. One of the problems was the linguistic obstacles, since most countries continue to obtain this data through interviews. But in Adelaide they were in a hurry. “They had not been isolated when the symptoms started, so it was very important to try to gather as much information as possible,” he told local radio ABC the head of Public Health of South Australia, Nicola Spurrier.

The police appeared to help. With the telephone number, it was enough to know the places where they had recently passed. “It is used quite frequently in criminal investigations,” said Commissioner Grant Stevens, although he acknowledged that it was an exceptional resource. This time, according to Stevens, it could be used because there were “life-threatening circumstances.” But the problem with this criterion is its randomness.

The authorities of South Australia managed to trace the path followed by those infected through the mobile operators. It doesn’t matter if the user has the location deactivated on his phone: he picks up the places by periodic calls between the mobile and an antenna. The system is similar to what caused a controversy in Spain last October when the National Statistics Institute agreed with the operators keep track of all the mobiles in Spain for eight days. Those locations were archived, the only question is when it is legal to access it and how.

In Australia, the authorities also gave another excuse: South Korea was already doing it. There were 27 cases this Sunday. But long before the authorities decided to share with the citizens the trail of all those affected. A student even created a map with the exact route of each affected thanks to official data. In a few days I had more than 8 million visits in a country of 51 million inhabitants.

The Spaniards perhaps believed at that time that their location is not always archived

“Tracking contacts is one of the most famous expressions these days in South Korea,” says a journalist from Arirang News In an informative. “It serves to trace the history and locations visited by a patient infected with coronavirus: restaurants, hotels, how he arrived or what line he took or bus number,” he explains. On the maps you see this information.

Australia and South Korea are the only countries where this use of data for surveillance has transpired. But that does not imply that they are the only ones. “As a tool it exists and can be used. But on such an issue, where the request is from the health authorities, it is not provided by law, ”says David Maeztu, an expert lawyer in Internet Law. “We should see what the courts say, because it would always be something that would need judicial authorization,” he adds. China, at the center of the epidemic, has gone further with surprising methods. Censorship in social networks is just the appetizer.

A citizen of Hangzhou, near Shanghai, received a call from the police because they had detected his license plate in Wenzhou, on the coast, which had had a peak of coronavirus cases. They asked him not to leave the house, according to Reuters account. At 12 days, bored, the man left. A facial recognition camera detected him and his boss was called at work to warn him.

The Wuhan coronavirus crisis uncovers the capacity of mass surveillance of States



China has already deployed a pilot program which uses sensors that detect the temperature of people leaving the subway. It can analyze up to 15 individuals every second. Then an agent would do a manual check of the “suspect.” There are companies that also work so that the facial recognition system works with masks. The facial unlocking of mobile phones, for example, does not work with the nose covered.

In China, this large-scale data management is not something that is hidden. The China Mobile operator warned its users with a message a few days ago that they could check their location for the last 30 days, also according to Reuters. I could serve them if they had to prove it to someone.

It is unlikely that all these systems will suffice by themselves to stop such a serious outbreak. That is why the Beijing Government has resorted to systems from other times of traditional surveillance, such as the control of entrances and exits of other citizens or the agents that the Party has in many neighborhoods and even portals, according to inform the New York Times

But the deployment of unprecedented measures that will be launched on account of this crisis is spectacular. The official medium Global times He published a video where a drone spoke to citizens who did not wear a mask or were where they did not live in different parts of the country. He also spoke to them live: “Hey, you pretty girls who are walking and eating, please put on the masks, you can eat when you get home,” or “Grandfather, why don’t you still wear a mask?” The man is surprised and smiles: “Don’t laugh, come hurry up and go home.”

According to two Chinese media cited for him Wall Street Journal, A municipality near the Chongqing macrourbe was able to identify more than 5,000 people who had been in Wuhan, without specifying how. In Zhejiang Province, along with Shanghai, they were able to show that a patient was lying when he said he had not interacted with anyone: at least he did it with three other people.

The drip of revelations linked to the coronavirus coincides with the news of the purchase of commercial databases that trace the movements of millions of mobiles in the United States by the Government, according to a exclusive also of Wall Street Journal The Trump administration is data that can help you see who moves through inhospitable areas of the Mexican border.

The key in all these processes is the ease of access to the data without going through a judge. In a famous ruling of the 2018 US Supreme Court, Chief Judge John Roberts wrote: “When the Government tracks the location of a mobile, it achieves near-perfect surveillance, as if it had attached a monitor bracelet on the ankle of the mobile user.” The conclusion of the text was that the Government could not access location data without a court order.

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