Human rights groups urge lawmakers to protect digital privacy as Congress holds “paper hearings” on the government’s COVID-19 response

Posted April 9, 2020, 4:38 PM

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Fight for the Future warns lawmakers of human rights abuses that are likely to result from increased digital surveillance

On Thursday, April 9th, 2020, Politico reported that Congressional lawmakers would be holding so-called “paper hearings” to discuss the use of personal data in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to avoid gathering together and possibly spreading the coronavirus, members of Congress will post written statements online, allowing four days for experts to respond.

“We oppose attempts to exploit this crisis to expand corporate or government surveillance,” said Evan Greer (she/her) deputy director of Fight for the Future. “So far there is little evidence to suggest that invasive measures like mandatory harvesting of location data even provide a public health benefit. Lawmakers should be focused on widespread testing, not widespread surveillance. They should finally pass strong data privacy legislation to protect hundreds of millions of people whose entire lives — from work to school to therapy — have moved online. They should provide funding to ensure everyone has access to the Internet at a time when it’s clearly essential. They should work to release as many people as possible from prisons and detention centers, where overcrowding threatens both human rights and public health. They should investigate and crack down on companies who are not providing adequate protections for workers who have been deemed essential. There are so many things lawmakers should prioritize during this public health crisis — expanding surveillance isn’t one of them.”

The historic paper hearings come at a time when governments around the world have imposed dangerous, authoritarian measures to track their citizens and stifle discussion about the disease. For example, Poland’s government has developed a mandatory app that victims of the coronavirus must use to take selfies to prove that they are staying inside and abiding by quarantine regulations. Israel’s government has authorized its internal security service to hack into the cell phones of patients who test positive for COVID-19 in order to trace their movements. Prominent Chinese critics and citizen journalists have gone missing amid widespread digital censorship and surveillance

Fight for the Future has launched a campaign website,, opposing any efforts to: 

  • Increase invasive surveillance
  • Censor free speech or limit the free flow of information
  • Enforce social distancing measures with violence or incarceration
  • Undermine due process and the rule of law

Americans are rightly concerned that their government might resort to similar tactics, prompting numerous human rights groups to weigh in. The ACLU notes that invasive surveillance may prevent people from seeking medical help out of fear of repercussions, and calls for strict safeguards on any use of data to track people’s movements. Amnesty International has been joined by more than 100 other civil society groups in urging “strict safeguards” necessary to prevent human rights abuses and permanent government overreach.

Sadly, many government agencies and companies are rushing to embrace these extreme — and extremely dangerous — measures in a misguided effort to combat COVID-19, often without making any effort to implement more common-sense tactics such as testing and education.