COVID-19 tracing apps must not interfere with human rights
14th May 2020, London – Global Witness is today warning governments to bring in safeguards against the potential misuse of COVID-19 tracing apps, following a new investigation that reveals serious concerns over the use of such an app in Guatemala.
His words are of particular concern in Guatemala where recent media investigations have alleged the use of large-scale cyber-surveillance operations against businessmen, politicians, journalists, diplomats and social leaders. According to Global Witness data from 2018, 16 environmental activists were killed in the country that year, making it one of the most dangerous places on earth for land and environmental defenders.
Everyone agrees there is an urgent need to stop this virus and find safe ways to ease the current lockdowns. But it is vital that we do not allow 'strong-man' politicians and surveillance companies to capitalise on the crisis and introduce measures that could harm vulnerable groups way beyond the pandemic. - Ava Lee, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness
The Guatemalan app should send a warning signal to the rest of the world – it shows just how serious the risks are and how easy it is to mask as helpful something potentially much more sinister. - Ava Lee
The Guatemalan government has proved time and time again it will use all available technologies to attack the most vulnerable in society; they cannot be trusted with data that allows the real-time tracking of citizens. - Jorge Santos, General Coordinator at Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos,
As lockdown measures begin to be eased globally, the use of such apps will become increasingly widespread, with the UK and other European countries already testing their own versions. Global Witness’ research on the businesses behind Alerta Guate highlights concerns about the role of companies with controversial track records and links to the international cyber-surveillance industry. The potential misuse of these apps could spread far beyond Guatemala.
The app was funded by Tenlot Group, the operator of the Guatemalan lottery, who say it was a donation to the Guatemalan government, although the use of scratch card advertisements on the platform suggest there is some sort of return for the company. Tenlot is owned by the Israeli billionaire Jacob Engel, who has a number of investments in the cyber-intelligence industry via his global investment fund, Elenlito.
As we are already seeing, these tracing apps will become the norm all over the world. They have the potential to save lives, but if developed in the wrong way they could be used to target already at risk communities, like asylum seekers and political dissidents, as well as for commercial purposes through targeted advertising. - Ava Lee
Unless watertight safeguards are put in place – and there is scrutiny over exactly who is behind these apps – countries could well be sleepwalking into surveillance states.. - Ava Lee
Responding to questions from Global Witness, Alerta Guate’s developer, In-telligent LLC, said that that the company does not share data from the app with the Guatemalan government or Tenlot and that the information it collects is “proprietary to In-telligent and kept [...] strictly confidential.” Tenlot’s CEO, Yossi Abadi, has denied publicly that his company or the Guatemalan government has access to any data collected through the app.
Along with other human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Global Witness is calling for limits to be placed both on the data collected and how long this data can be held for.
Proper due diligence must also be conducted on the companies funding and operating the apps before they are introduced.
Notes to editor:
- Further details of the recommendations from other human rights groups can be found at https://www.amnestyusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/FULL-STATEMENT.pdf.
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