Many of our digital rights are impacted by COVID-19. Now more than ever, EFF is dedicated to ensuring that technology supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all the people of the world.
Surveillance. Governments around the world are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers that many hope will contain the virus’ spread. But many of these powers would invade our privacy, inhibit our free speech, and disparately burden vulnerable groups of people. Mindful of the stakes, we ask three questions when analyzing proposals that would provide greater surveillance powers to the government: Would the proposal work? Would it excessively intrude on our freedoms? Are there sufficient safeguards? Different proposals raise different issues. For example:
- Government has not shown that some intrusive technologies would work. For example, phone location surveillance is insufficiently granular to identify when two people were close enough together to transmit the virus (but it will expose where we’ve been and what we’ve been doing). Likewise, digital verified credentials of COVID-19 test results won’t help, because no immunity test exists, and one can be infected after being tested (but such credentials will take us a worrisome step towards national digital identification) .
- Some surveillance proposals are too dangerous to a democratic society. These include: dragnet surveillance cameras in public places that use face recognition or thermal imaging; mounting such technologies on drones; giving police officers access to public health data about where people who have tested positive live; and monitoring the home quarantine of COVID-19 patients with ankle GPS shackles or compulsion to download tracking apps.
- Some technologies, such as aggregate location data used to inform public health decisions, need strict safeguards.
- No COVID tracking app will work absent widespread testing and interview-based contact tracing. Bluetooth proximity is the most promising approach so far, but needs rigorous security testing and data minimization. No one should be forced to use it.
Free Speech. The free flow of ideas about COVID-19 is vital. This includes anonymous whistle-blowing about containment efforts, online criticisms of government responses to the crisis, and prisoner access to social media to tell the world about outbreaks behind bars. Governments will inevitably abuse any new powers to censor what they deem false information about the virus. When online platforms increase their reliance on automated content moderation, in part because human moderators cannot safely come to work, those moderation “decisions” must be temporary, transparent, and easily appealable. Platforms should take into account the Santa Clara Principles for transparent and accountable content moderation. We are troubled by Facebook’s plan to limit speech about public protests.
Innovation. New technologies and ideas can help address the public health crisis. We must have free and open access to scientific knowledge about the virus. Tinkerers should be able to fix medical devices, and have easy online access to repair manuals. Open innovation in medical technology will save lives. The federal government should exercise its power to stop patent trolls from endangering COVID-19 testing and treatment, and should not increase patent terms for technologies related to this health crisis.
Fiber For All. Social distancing is causing many of us to spend more time on the Internet. But not all Americans have fast and competitively-priced Internet access. So EFF is advocating for federal and state laws to redouble efforts to build better broadband for everyone. You can take action to support these bills.
Government transparency. Government decision-making about the virus must be transparent. When governments temporarily close the physical spaces where they make decisions, for purposes of social distancing, they must adopt new transparency accommodations, such as broadcasting their proceedings. While government responses to public records requests may be slower during this public health crisis, the outbreak is no excuse to shut them down altogether.
Living More Online. We need better online access to books. As we rely on more online tools to make working from home and distance learning possible, Internet users should update their surveillance self-defense knowledge, for example, to make informed decisions about using online meeting tools, organizing online mutual aid efforts, and avoiding Coronavirus phishing. Although musicians are under real financial stress due to the virus, mandatory automated filters to identify alleged copyright infringement are not the answer.
You Can Support Our Work! You can donate and download our ebook, EFF’s Guide to Digital Rights and the Pandemic, which includes our writings through May 4. You can show your support for digital rights during video calls with EFF virtual backgrounds, and learn more by watching our virtual “At Home With EFF” events.