Edward Snowden warns COVID-19 could give governments invasive new data collection powers that will last long after the pandemic


Edward Snowden Web Summit

  • Edward Snowden said in an interview on Monday that increased surveillance due to the coronavirus outbreak could lead to long-lasting erosion of civil liberties.
  • Specifically, he theorized that states might demand access to people’s health data — e.g. their heart rate — from wearables.
  • Countries have been rapidly ramping up their surveillance of citizens in an effort to study and curb the spread of the virus, ranging from mapping anonymized phone location data to highly invasive powers, like allowing the security services to track individuals’ phones without a warrant
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Edward Snowden, the man who exposed the breadth of NSA spying, has warned that an uptick in surveillance due to the coronavirus could lead to long-lasting effects on civil liberties.

During a video-conference interview for the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival, Snowden said that, theoretically, new powers introduced by states to combat the coronavirus outbreak could remain in place after the crisis has subsided.

Fear of the virus and its spread to potentially could mean governments “send an order to every fitness tracker that can get something like pulse or heart rate,” and demand access to that data, Snowden said.

“Five years later the coronavirus is gone, this data’s still available to them — they start looking for new things,” Snowden said. “They already know what you’re looking at on the internet, they already know where your phone is moving, now they know what your heart rate is. What happens when they start to intermix these and apply artificial intelligence to them?” Snowden added.

While no reports have surfaced so far of states demanding access to health data from wearables like the Apple Watch, many countries are fast introducing new methods of surveillance to better understand and curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Numerous European countries including Italy, the UK, and Germany have struck up deals with telecoms companies to use anonymous, aggregated data to create virtual heat maps of people’s movements. 

Israel granted its spy services emergency powers to hack citizens’ phones without a warrant, South Korea has been sending out text alerts to warn people when they may have been in contact with a coronavirus patient including personal details like age and gender. Singapore is using a smartphone app to monitor the spread of the coronavirus by tracking people who may have been exposed.

In Poland citizens under quarantine have to download a government app that mandates they respond to periodic requests for selfies, and Taiwan has introduced an “electronic fence” system which alerts the police if quarantined patients move outside their house.

SEE ALSO: 11 countries are now using people’s phones to track the coronavirus pandemic, and it heralds a massive increase in surveillance

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