Police clutch on COVID-19 tech to extend world surveillance

Huizhong Wu

China correspondent founded in Taiwan



December 21, 2022 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Majd Ramlawi was once serving espresso in Jerusalem’s Outdated Town when a chilling textual content message seemed on his telephone.

“You’ve gotten been noticed as having participated in acts of violence within the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” it learn in Arabic. “We can grasp you responsible.”

Ramlawi, then 19, was once amongst loads of people that civil rights lawyers estimate were given the textual content ultimate 12 months, on the peak of one of the vital turbulent contemporary classes within the Holy Land. Many, together with Ramlawi, say they simply lived or labored in the community, and had not anything to do with the unrest. What he didn’t know was once that the dreaded interior safety company, the Shin Wager, was once the usage of mass surveillance know-how mobilized for coronavirus touch tracing, in opposition to Israeli citizens and voters for functions solely unrelated to COVID-19.

Within the pandemic’s bewildering early days, tens of millions international believed authorities officers who stated they wanted confidential knowledge for brand new tech gear that would lend a hand prevent coronavirus’ unfold. In go back, governments were given a firehose of people’ personal well being main points, images that captured their facial measurements and their domestic addresses.

Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, The Related Press has discovered that government used those applied sciences and information to halt shuttle for activists and unusual other folks, harass marginalized communities and hyperlink other folks’s well being data to different surveillance and legislation enforcement gear. In some circumstances, knowledge was once shared with undercover agent companies. The problem has taken on recent urgency virtually 3 years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID insurance policies not too long ago ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the rustic’s authoritarian management for the reason that pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Sq. in 1989.

For greater than a 12 months, AP reporters interviewed assets and pored over 1000’s of paperwork to track how applied sciences advertised to “flatten the curve” had been put to different makes use of. Simply because the steadiness between privateness and nationwide safety shifted after the Sep 11 terrorist assaults, COVID-19 has given officers justification to embed monitoring gear in society that experience lasted lengthy after lockdowns.

“Any intervention that will increase state energy to observe folks has an extended tail and is a ratcheting machine,” stated John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher on the Toronto-based web watchdog Citizen Lab. “When you get it, may be very not going it’ll ever move away.”


In China, the ultimate main nation on the planet to implement strict COVID-19 lockdowns, voters were required to put in cell-phone apps to transport about freely in maximum towns. Drawing from telecommunications knowledge and PCR take a look at effects, the apps produce particular person QR codes that adjust from inexperienced to yellow or purple, relying on an individual’s well being standing.

The apps and lockdowns are a part of China’s sweeping pandemic prevention insurance policies that experience driven the general public to a verge of collapse. When an condo fireplace in Urumqi ultimate month left no less than 10 useless, many blamed zero-tolerance COVID insurance policies. That sparked demonstrations in main towns national, the most important show of defiance in many years, and then the federal government introduced it could simplest examine well being codes in “particular puts,” comparable to colleges, hospitals and nursing properties.

Closing week, the federal government went additional, pronouncing it could close down a national-level well being code to ease shuttle between provinces. However towns and provinces have their very own codes, which were extra dominant. In Beijing ultimate week, eating places, workplaces, resorts and gymnasiums had been nonetheless requiring native codes for access.

During the last few years, Chinese language voters have wanted a inexperienced code to board home flights or trains, and in some towns even to go into the grocery store or to get on a bus. In the event that they had been discovered to were in shut touch with somebody who examined sure for COVID-19, or if the federal government imposed a neighborhood quarantine, the code would flip purple, and so they had been caught at domestic.

There’s proof that the well being codes were used to stifle dissent.


This tale, supported via the Pulitzer Heart on Disaster Reporting, is a part of an ongoing Related Press sequence, “Tracked,” that investigates the ability and penalties of choices pushed via algorithms on other folks’s on a regular basis lives.


In early September, former wealth supervisor Yang Jiahao purchased a educate price ticket to Beijing, the place he deliberate to resort more than a few court cases with the central authorities. The night time prior to, a girl he described as a handler invited him to dinner. Handlers are generally employed via state safety as a part of “steadiness upkeep” operations and will require other folks to satisfy or shuttle when government fear they might purpose bother. Yang had a meal with the handler, and the following morning Guangzhou well being government reported a COVID-19 case not up to a kilometer from the place they dined, he stated.

According to metropolis rules, Yang’s code must have grew to become yellow, requiring him to take a couple of COVID exams to turn he was once adverse.

As a substitute, the app grew to become purple, despite the fact that exams confirmed that he didn’t have COVID. Yang was once ordered to quarantine and a paper seal was once put on his door.

“They are able to do no matter they would like,” he stated.

An officer on the Huangcun station of the Guangzhou police referred remark to city-level government on Yang’s case, pronouncing he required evidence that the caller was once from the AP. Guangzhou’s Public Safety Bureau and town’s Heart for Illness Keep watch over and Prevention didn’t reply to faxed requests for remark.

In any other display of ways the apps can regulate lives, in June, a gaggle of financial institution shoppers had been successfully corralled via the well being codes once they attempted going to Henan’s provincial capital in Zhengzhou to protest being not able to get right of entry to their on-line financial institution accounts.

A understand stated the issue was once because of a machine improve. However the shoppers quickly came upon the actual explanation why: a police investigation into stockholders within the father or mother financial institution had rendered 40 billion yuan in price range inaccessible, in keeping with native media reviews. Pissed off after months of court cases, a gaggle of shoppers determined to carry a protest in Zhengzhou on the provincial banking fee.

Buyer Xu Zhihao uploaded his itinerary to get the Henan province well being code after he examined adverse for COVID-19 in his coastal metropolis of Tianjin, simply south of Beijing. As he were given off the educate in Zhengzhou, Xu was once requested to scan his QR code on the station, and instantly it grew to become purple. The educate station worker known as safety and took him to a police sales space.

Xu stated police took him to the basement to quarantine. 3 other folks joined him, and all 4 discovered that that they had come to get their a reimbursement.

“They’d set the web in position, looking ahead to us,” Xu stated.

From a gaggle chat, Xu and others discovered that many protesters had met a equivalent destiny, on the high-speed rail educate station, on the airport or even at the freeway. A central authority inquiry later discovered that purple codes got to at least one,317 other folks, a lot of whom had deliberate to protest.

China’s Nationwide Well being Fee, which has led the COVID reaction, didn’t respond to a fax inquiring for remark. The Henan provincial authorities didn’t reply both.

Even after China ends lockdowns, some dissidents and human rights activists are expecting the local-level well being codes will dwell on as a technological approach of social regulate. Early on, provinces didn’t percentage knowledge, however previously few years, that has modified.

Some provincial governments have created native apps that may hyperlink well being, location or even credit score data, which leaves open the likelihood for those apps or the nationwide databases they draw from for use to observe other folks at some point, in keeping with an AP evaluate of procurement paperwork, analysis and interviews. Xu and Yang, as an example, had been each stopped of their tracks via native well being codes.

In February, police in northeastern Heilongjiang province sought to improve their native well being code so they might seek PCR take a look at effects for any individual in China, in actual time, in keeping with procurement paperwork supplied solely via ChinaFile, a virtual mag revealed via the Asia Society. An organization whose father or mother is government-owned received the non-competitive bid to attach that app to a countrywide database of PCR knowledge run via the State Council, China’s Cupboard, satisfying a countrywide directive, the paperwork display. The similar corporate, Beijing Beiming Virtual Era, additionally claims on its website online that it has evolved greater than 30 pandemic apps.

“It’s the governance type, the philosophy in the back of it’s to toughen social regulate via know-how. It’s bolstered via the well being app, and it’s indisputably going to stick after COVID is over,” stated Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I believe it’s very, very tough.”


In Jerusalem’s Outdated Town, vacationers sipping recent pomegranate juice, worshippers and locals taking a shortcut domestic are all monitored via Israeli safety forces keeping automated guns. The labyrinth of cavernous pathways could also be coated with CCTV cameras and what government have described as “complex applied sciences.”

After clashes in Would possibly 2021 on the Al-Aqsa Mosque helped cause an 11-day battle with Hamas militants within the Gaza Strip, Israel skilled one of the vital worst violence in years. Police lobbed stun grenades into the disputed compound recognized to Jews because the Temple Mount, domestic to Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest website, as Palestinian crowds holed up inside of hurling stones and firebombs at them.

Via that point, Israelis had turn out to be aware of police appearing up out of doors their properties to mention they weren’t staring at quarantine and knew that Israel’s Shin Wager safety company was once repurposing telephone surveillance know-how it had prior to now used to observe militants inside of Palestinian territories. The observe made headlines initially of the pandemic when the Israeli authorities stated it could be deployed for COVID-19 touch tracing.

A 12 months later, the Shin Wager quietly started the usage of the similar know-how to ship threatening messages to Israel’s Arab voters and citizens whom the company suspected of collaborating in violent clashes with police. One of the vital recipients, on the other hand, merely lived or labored within the house, or had been mere passers-by.

Ramlawi’s coffeeshop sits within the ornate Cotton Service provider’s Marketplace out of doors the mosque compound, a space coated with police and safety cameras that most likely would have known the barista had he participated in violence.

Even supposing Ramlawi deleted the message and hasn’t gained a equivalent one since, he stated the considered his telephone getting used as a tracking instrument nonetheless haunts him.

“It’s like the federal government is on your bag,” stated Ramlawi, who worries that surveillance enabled to forestall COVID-19 poses a long-lasting threat for east Jerusalem citizens. “Whilst you transfer, the federal government is with you with this telephone.”

The Shin Wager’s home use of the know-how has generated an uproar over privateness and civil liberties inside of Israel, in addition to questions on its accuracy. The Ministry of Communications, which oversees Israel’s telecommunications firms, refused a request in the hunt for additional main points submitted for the AP via the Motion for Freedom of Knowledge, a nonprofit that continuously works with media organizations.

Gil Gan-Mor, an legal professional with the nonprofit Affiliation for Civil Rights in Israel, estimates that loads of Arabs in Jerusalem gained the threatening message all through the unrest and stated the mass textual content message blast was once remarkable.

“You can’t simply say to other folks, ‘We’re looking at you … and we will be able to get revenge,” he stated. “You can’t use this instrument to frighten other folks. You probably have one thing in opposition to somebody, you’ll put them on trial.’”

After Gan-Mor’s group sued, Shin Wager made no apologies.

“There was once a transparent safety want to ship an pressing message to an overly massive choice of other folks, all of whom had a reputable suspicion of being all for appearing violent crimes,” the company stated in a felony submitting ultimate 12 months. The submitting, signed via “Daniella B.,” the Shin Wager’s felony adviser for the Jerusalem district, additionally said that “courses had been discovered.”

In February, Israel’s legal professional normal upheld the ongoing use of the know-how, pronouncing it was once a sound safety instrument, whilst acknowledging system faults within the machine and that messages had been disbursed to a small choice of accidental goals. Israel’s Ultimate Courtroom is now reviewing the topic.

Sami Abu Shehadeh, a former Arab lawmaker who served in Israel’s parliament on the time Shin Wager despatched its caution texts, stated the messages show the wider struggles of Israel’s 20% Arab minority.

“The state does now not maintain us as voters,” he stated. “There are two units of regulations — one for Jews and one for Arabs.”


Applied sciences designed to struggle COVID-19 had been redirected via legislation enforcement and intelligence services and products in different democracies as governments expanded their virtual arsenals amid the pandemic.

In India, facial reputation and synthetic intelligence know-how exploded after Top Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Celebration swept into energy in 2014, changing into a device for police to observe mass gatherings. The rustic is looking for to construct what’s going to be a few of the international’s greatest facial reputation networks.

Because the pandemic took grasp in early 2020, state and central governments tasked native police with implementing masks mandates. Fines of as much as $25, up to 12 days’ pay for some laborers and unaffordable for the just about 230 million other folks estimated to be dwelling in poverty in India, had been offered in some puts.

Within the south-central metropolis of Hyderabad, police began taking photos of other folks flaunting the masks mandate or just dressed in mask haphazardly.

Police Commissioner C.V. Anand stated town has spent loads of tens of millions of bucks lately on patrol cars, CCTV cameras, facial reputation and geo-tracking packages and a number of other hundred facial reputation cameras, amongst different applied sciences powered via algorithms or device studying. Within Hyderabad’s Command and Keep watch over Heart, officials confirmed an AP reporter how they run CCTV digital camera photos via facial reputation instrument that scans pictures in opposition to a database of offenders.

“When (firms) come to a decision to spend money on a metropolis, they first take a look at the law-and-order scenario,” Anand stated, protecting the usage of such gear as completely important. “Other people listed here are acutely aware of what the applied sciences can do, and there may be healthy strengthen for it.”

Via Would possibly 2020, the police leader of Telangana state tweeted about his division rolling out AI-based instrument the usage of CCTV to zero-in on other folks now not dressed in mask. The tweet integrated footage of the instrument covering coloured rectangles at the maskless faces of unsuspecting locals.

Greater than a 12 months later, police tweeted pictures of themselves the usage of hand held capsules to scan other folks’s faces the usage of facial reputation instrument, in keeping with a submit from the legitimate Twitter care for of the station space officer within the Amberpet community.

Police stated the capsules, which will take unusual images or hyperlink them to a facial reputation database of criminals, had been an invaluable means for officials to catch and high quality masks offenders.

“After they see somebody now not dressed in a masks, they move as much as them, take a photograph on their pill, take down their main points like telephone quantity and identify,” stated B Guru Naidu, an inspector in Hyderabad’s South Zone.

Officials come to a decision who they deem suspicious, stoking fears amongst privateness advocates, some Muslims and participants of Hyderabad’s lower-caste communities.

“If the patrolling officials suspect somebody, they take their fingerprints or scan their face – the app at the pill will then examine those for any previous felony antecedents,” Naidu stated.

S Q Masood, a social activist who has led authorities transparency campaigns in Hyderabad, sees extra at stake. Masood and his spouse’s father had been reputedly stopped at random via police in Shahran marketplace, a predominantly Muslim house, all through a COVID-19 surge ultimate 12 months. Masood stated officials informed him to take away his masks so they might {photograph} him with a pill.

“I informed them I received’t take away my masks. They then requested me why now not, and I informed them I can now not take away my masks.” He stated they photographed him with it in position. Again domestic, Masood went from bewildered to worried: The place and the way was once this picture for use? Would it not be added to the police’s facial reputation database?

Now he’s suing within the Telangana Prime Courtroom to determine why his picture was once taken and to restrict the common use of facial reputation. His case may set the tone for India’s rising ambition to mix rising know-how with legislation enforcement on the planet’s greatest democracy, professionals stated.

India lacks a knowledge coverage legislation or even current proposals received’t keep watch over surveillance applied sciences in the event that they turn out to be legislation, stated Apar Gupta, government director of the New Delhi-based Web Freedom Basis, which helps to constitute Masood.

Police replied to Masood’s lawsuit and denied the usage of facial reputation in his case, pronouncing that his {photograph} was once now not scanned in opposition to any database and that facial reputation is simplest used all through the investigation of against the law or suspected crime, when it may be run in opposition to CCTV photos.

In two separate AP interviews, native police demonstrated each how the TSCOP app carried via police in the street can evaluate an individual’s {photograph} to a facial reputation database of criminals, and the way from the Command and Keep watch over Heart police can use facial reputation research to check saved mugshots of criminals to video accumulated from CCTV cameras.

Masood’s attorneys are running on a reaction and anticipating a listening to date.

Privateness advocates in India consider that such stepped-up movements underneath the pandemic may allow what they name 360 stage surveillance, underneath which such things as housing, welfare, well being and different forms of knowledge are all related in combination to create a profile.

“Surveillance nowadays is being posed as a technological panacea to huge social issues in India, which has introduced us very with regards to China,” Gupta stated. “There’s no legislation. There aren’t any safeguards. And that is normal function deployment of mass surveillance.”


What use will in the long run be made from the information accumulated and gear evolved all through the peak of the pandemic stays an open query. However contemporary makes use of in Australia and america might be offering a glimpse.

Throughout two years of strict border controls, Australia’s conservative former Top Minister Scott Morrison took the strange step of appointing himself minister of 5 departments, together with the Division of Well being. Government offered each nationwide and state-level apps to inform other folks once they were within the neighborhood of somebody who examined sure for the virus.

However the apps had been additionally utilized in alternative ways. Australia’s intelligence companies had been stuck “by the way” accumulating knowledge from the nationwide COVIDSafe app. Information of the breach surfaced in a November 2020 record via the Inspector-Common of Intelligence and Safety, which stated there was once no proof that the information was once decrypted, accessed or used. The nationwide app was once canceled in August via a brand new management as a waste of cash: it had known simplest two sure COVID-19 circumstances that wouldn’t were discovered in a different way.

On the native point, other folks used apps to faucet their telephones in opposition to a website’s QR code, logging their particular person ID in order that if a COVID-19 outbreak happened, they may well be contacted. The information occasionally was once used for different functions. Australian legislation enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in knowledge as a form of digital dragnet to research crimes.

After biker gang boss Nick Martin was once shot and killed at a speedway in Perth, police accessed QR code check-in knowledge from the well being apps of two,439 drag racing enthusiasts who attended the December 2020 race. It integrated names, telephone numbers and arrival instances.

Police accessed the ideas in spite of Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan’s promise on Fb that the COVID-related knowledge would simplest be available to contact-tracing body of workers on the Division of Well being. The homicide was once sooner or later solved the usage of solely conventional policing ways, together with footprint matching, cellular phone monitoring and in the long run a confession.

Western Australia police didn’t reply to requests for remark. Queensland and Victoria legislation enforcement additionally sought the general public’s QR check-in knowledge in reference to investigations. Police in each states didn’t deal with AP questions relating to why they sought the information, and lawmakers in Queensland and Victoria have since tightened the foundations on police get right of entry to to QR check-in data.

Within the U.S., which trusted a hodge-podge of state and native quarantine orders to verify compliance with COVID regulations, the government took the chance to construct out its surveillance toolkit, together with two contracts in 2020 value $24.9 million to the information mining and surveillance corporate Palantir Applied sciences Inc. to strengthen the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Services and products’ pandemic reaction. Paperwork got via the immigrant rights workforce Simply Futures Legislation underneath the Freedom of Knowledge Act and shared with the AP confirmed that federal officers pondered how you can percentage knowledge that went a long way past COVID-19.

The chances integrated integrating “identifiable affected person knowledge,” comparable to psychological well being, substance use and behavioral well being data from workforce properties, shelters, jails, detox amenities and colleges. The U.S. Facilities for Illness Keep watch over does now not use any of that individual-level data within the platform CDC now manages, stated Kevin Griffis, a division spokesman. Griffis stated he may now not touch upon discussions that happened underneath the former management.

The protocols perceived to lack data safeguards or utilization restrictions, stated Paromita Shah, Simply Futures Legislation’s government director.

“What the pandemic did was once blow up an business of mass choice of biometric and biographical knowledge,” Shah stated. “So, few issues had been off the desk.”

Closing 12 months, the U.S. Facilities for Illness Keep watch over bought detailed cellular phone location knowledge revealing other folks’s day by day whereabouts, national. “Mobility insights” knowledge from no less than 20 million units may well be used to “venture how a lot worse issues would were with out the bans,” comparable to stay-at-home orders and industry closures, in keeping with a July 2021 contract got via the nonprofit workforce Tech Inquiry and shared with the AP.

The contract presentations knowledge dealer Cuebiq supplied a “tool ID,” which usually ties data to particular person mobile phones. The CDC additionally may use the ideas to inspect the impact of ultimate borders, an emergency measure ordered via the Trump management and persevered via President Joe Biden, in spite of best scientists’ objections that there was once no proof the motion would gradual the coronavirus.

CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund stated the company bought aggregated, nameless knowledge with intensive privateness protections for public well being analysis, however didn’t deal with questions on whether or not the company was once nonetheless the usage of the information. The CDC may nonetheless get right of entry to mixture, county-level cell phone knowledge via October, a number of months after its contract ended, Cuebiq spokesman Invoice Daddi stated on Tuesday. He added that prior to then, the CDC additionally can have analyzed privacy-protected particular person cell phone knowledge, however selected to not.

For Scott-Railton, that units a perilous precedent.

“What COVID did was once boost up state use of those gear and that knowledge and normalize it, so it have compatibility a story about there being a public get advantages,” he stated. “Now the query is, are we going to be capable to having a reckoning round the usage of this knowledge, or is that this the brand new customary?”


Former AP video journalist Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this record from Hyderabad, India. AP staffers Lori Hinnant contributed from Paris; María Verza from Mexico Town; Astrid Suárez from Bogotá, Colombia; Edna Tarigan from Jakarta, Indonesia; Tong-hyung Kim from Seoul, South Korea; and Eileen Ng from Singapore. Daria Litvinova and retired Related Press Afghanistan and Pakistan Bureau Leader Kathy Gannon additionally contributed. Deputy Editor of The Mail & Mother or father Athandiwe Saba assisted from Johannesburg. Burke reported from San Francisco; Federman from Jerusalem; McGuirk from Canberra, Australia; Pathi from Hyderabad, India; and Wu from Taipei, Taiwan.


This reporting was once produced in collaboration with researcher Avani Yadav with strengthen from the Human Rights Heart Investigations Lab on the College of California, Berkeley. It was once in part supported via the Starling Lab for Virtual Integrity, co-founded via the College of Southern California and Stanford College, the place Burke was once a journalism fellow.


Observe Garance Burke on Twitter at @garanceburke. Touch AP’s world investigative workforce at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/pointers/

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