Police grasp on COVID-19 tech to enlarge international surveillance

Huizhong Wu

China correspondent founded in Taiwan



December 21, 2022 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Majd Ramlawi was once serving espresso in Jerusalem’s Previous Town when a chilling textual content message gave the impression on his cellphone.

“You will have 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 masses of people that civil rights lawyers estimate were given the textual content closing 12 months, on the peak of one of the crucial turbulent contemporary sessions within the Holy Land. Many, together with Ramlawi, say they just lived or labored locally, and had not anything to do with the unrest. What he didn’t know was once that the scary inner safety company, the Shin Guess, was once the usage of mass surveillance know-how mobilized for coronavirus touch tracing, towards Israeli citizens and voters for functions fully unrelated to COVID-19.

Within the pandemic’s bewildering early days, tens of millions international believed authorities officers who stated they wanted confidential information for brand new tech equipment that would assist forestall coronavirus’ unfold. In go back, governments were given a firehose of people’ non-public 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 commute for activists and odd other people, harass marginalized communities and hyperlink other people’s well being data to different surveillance and legislation enforcement equipment. In some circumstances, information was once shared with secret agent businesses. The problem has taken on contemporary urgency nearly 3 years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID insurance policies just lately 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 stability between privateness and nationwide safety shifted after the 9/11 terrorist assaults, COVID-19 has given officers justification to embed monitoring equipment in society that experience lasted lengthy after lockdowns.

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


In China, the closing primary nation on the earth to put into effect strict COVID-19 lockdowns, voters were required to put in cell-phone apps to transport about freely in maximum towns. Drawing from telecommunications information and PCR take a look at effects, the apps produce particular person QR codes that modify from inexperienced to yellow or crimson, 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 condominium fireplace in Urumqi closing month left no less than 10 lifeless, many blamed zero-tolerance COVID insurance policies. That sparked demonstrations in primary towns national, the biggest show of defiance in many years, and then the federal government introduced it might best verify well being codes in “particular puts,” reminiscent of faculties, hospitals and nursing houses.

Remaining week, the federal government went additional, announcing it might close down a national-level well being code to ease commute between provinces. However towns and provinces have their very own codes, that have been extra dominant. In Beijing closing week, eating places, places of work, inns and gymnasiums had been nonetheless requiring native codes for access.

Over 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 crimson, they usually had been caught at domestic.

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


This tale, supported by way of the Pulitzer Middle on Disaster Reporting, is a part of an ongoing Related Press collection, “Tracked,” that investigates the ability and penalties of selections pushed by way of algorithms on other people’s on a regular basis lives.


In early September, former wealth supervisor Yang Jiahao purchased a educate price tag to Beijing, the place he deliberate to hotel more than a few proceedings with the central authorities. The evening sooner than, a lady he described as a handler invited him to dinner. Handlers are typically employed by way of state safety as a part of “balance repairs” operations and will require other people to fulfill or commute when government fear they might reason bother. Yang had a meal with the handler, and the following morning Guangzhou well being government reported a COVID-19 case lower than a kilometer from the place they dined, he stated.

In line with metropolis rules, Yang’s code will have to have grew to become yellow, requiring him to take a couple of COVID exams to turn he was once damaging.

As a substitute, the app grew to become crimson, even supposing 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 may be 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, announcing he required evidence that the caller was once from the AP. Guangzhou’s Public Safety Bureau and town’s Middle for Illness Keep watch over and Prevention didn’t reply to faxed requests for remark.

In every other display of ways the apps can keep an eye on lives, in June, a gaggle of financial institution shoppers had been successfully corralled by way of the well being codes after they attempted going to Henan’s provincial capital in Zhengzhou to protest being not able to get admission to their on-line financial institution accounts.

A understand stated the issue was once because of a gadget improve. However the shoppers quickly came upon the actual reason why: a police investigation into stockholders within the dad or mum financial institution had rendered 40 billion yuan in budget inaccessible, in keeping with native media experiences. Pissed off after months of proceedings, a gaggle of consumers 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 damaging 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 crimson. 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 folks joined him, and all 4 discovered that they’d come to get their a refund.

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

From a gaggle chat, Xu and others realized that many protesters had met a an identical destiny, on the high-speed rail educate station, on the airport or even at the freeway. A central authority inquiry later discovered that crimson codes got to one,317 other people, lots 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 expect the local-level well being codes will live on as a technological method of social keep an eye on. Early on, provinces didn’t percentage information, however prior to now 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 chance for those apps or the nationwide databases they draw from for use to watch other people sooner or later, in keeping with an AP evaluation of procurement paperwork, analysis and interviews. Xu and Yang, for example, had been each stopped of their tracks by way of 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 person in China, in actual time, in keeping with procurement paperwork equipped completely by way of ChinaFile, a virtual mag revealed by way of the Asia Society. An organization whose dad or mum is government-owned received the non-competitive bid to attach that app to a countrywide database of PCR information run by way of 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 advanced greater than 30 pandemic apps.

“It’s the governance type, the philosophy in the back of it’s to reinforce social keep an eye on via know-how. It’s reinforced by way of the well being app, and it’s for sure going to stick after COVID is over,” stated Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I feel it’s very, very tough.”


In Jerusalem’s Previous Town, vacationers sipping contemporary pomegranate juice, worshippers and locals taking a shortcut domestic are all monitored by way of Israeli safety forces conserving 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 warfare with Hamas militants within the Gaza Strip, Israel skilled probably the most worst violence in years. Police lobbed stun grenades into the disputed compound identified to Jews because the Temple Mount, domestic to Al-Aqsa, Islam’s third-holiest web site, as Palestinian crowds holed up inside of hurling stones and firebombs at them.

Via that point, Israelis had transform aware of police appearing up out of doors their houses to mention they weren’t watching quarantine and knew that Israel’s Shin Guess safety company was once repurposing cellphone surveillance know-how it had in the past used to watch militants inside of Palestinian territories. The observe made headlines at the beginning of the pandemic when the Israeli authorities stated it might be deployed for COVID-19 touch tracing.

A 12 months later, the Shin Guess 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 crucial recipients, alternatively, merely lived or labored within the space, 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 recognized the barista had he participated in violence.

Despite the fact that Ramlawi deleted the message and hasn’t gained a an identical one since, he stated the considered his cellphone getting used as a tracking device nonetheless haunts him.

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

The Shin Guess’s home use of the know-how has generated an uproar over privateness and civil liberties inside 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 by way of the Motion for Freedom of Knowledge, a nonprofit that regularly works with media organizations.

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

“You can’t simply say to other people, ‘We’re gazing you … and we will be able to get revenge,” he stated. “You can’t use this device to frighten other people. When you have one thing towards somebody, you’ll be able to put them on trial.’”

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

“There was once a transparent safety want to ship an pressing message to an overly huge selection of other people, all of whom had a reputable suspicion of being fascinated with acting violent crimes,” the company stated in a felony submitting closing 12 months. The submitting, signed by way of “Daniella B.,” the Shin Guess’s felony adviser for the Jerusalem district, additionally said that “courses had been realized.”

In February, Israel’s legal professional common upheld the ongoing use of the know-how, announcing it was once a valid safety device, whilst acknowledging system faults within the gadget and that messages had been disbursed to a small selection of unintentional objectives. Israel’s Splendid Courtroom is now reviewing the subject.

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

“The state does no longer take care of us as voters,” he stated. “There are two units of rules — one for Jews and one for Arabs.”


Applied sciences designed to fight COVID-19 had been redirected by way of legislation enforcement and intelligence products and services 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 Birthday celebration swept into energy in 2014, turning into a device for police to watch mass gatherings. The rustic is looking for to construct what is going to be a number of the international’s biggest facial reputation networks.

Because the pandemic took grasp in early 2020, state and central governments tasked native police with imposing 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 people estimated to be dwelling in poverty in India, had been presented in some puts.

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

Police Commissioner C.V. Anand stated town has spent masses of tens of millions of greenbacks in recent times on patrol automobiles, CCTV cameras, facial reputation and geo-tracking packages and several other hundred facial reputation cameras, amongst different applied sciences powered by way of algorithms or system finding out. Inside of Hyderabad’s Command and Keep watch over Middle, officials confirmed an AP reporter how they run CCTV digital camera photos via facial reputation device that scans pictures towards a database of offenders.

“When (firms) make a decision to put money into a metropolis, they first take a look at the law-and-order state of affairs,” Anand stated, protecting the usage of such equipment as completely essential. “Other people listed here are conscious about what the applied sciences can do, and there’s healthy toughen for it.”

Via Would possibly 2020, the police leader of Telangana state tweeted about his division rolling out AI-based device the usage of CCTV to zero-in on other people no longer dressed in mask. The tweet incorporated footage of the device masking 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 pills to scan other people’s faces the usage of facial reputation device, in keeping with a submit from the respectable Twitter care for of the station space officer within the Amberpet group.

Police stated the pills, which will take odd images or hyperlink them to a facial reputation database of criminals, had been an invaluable manner for officials to catch and superb masks offenders.

“After they see somebody no longer dressed in a masks, they move as much as them, take a photograph on their pill, take down their main points like cellphone quantity and identify,” stated B Guru Naidu, an inspector in Hyderabad’s South Zone.

Officials make 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 someone, they take their fingerprints or scan their face – the app at the pill will then verify 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 sweetheart’s father had been reputedly stopped at random by way of police in Shahran marketplace, a predominantly Muslim space, all the way through a COVID-19 surge closing 12 months. Masood stated officials instructed him to take away his masks so they might {photograph} him with a pill.

“I instructed them I received’t take away my masks. They then requested me why no longer, and I instructed them I can no longer take away my masks.” He stated they photographed him with it in position. Again domestic, Masood went from bewildered to nervous: 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 Top Courtroom to determine why his picture was once taken and to restrict the well-liked 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 earth’s biggest democracy, professionals stated.

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

Police answered to Masood’s lawsuit and denied the usage of facial reputation in his case, announcing that his {photograph} was once no longer scanned towards any database and that facial reputation is best used all the way through the investigation of a criminal offense or suspected crime, when it may be run towards CCTV photos.

In two separate AP interviews, native police demonstrated each how the TSCOP app carried by way of 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 Middle police can use facial reputation research to match saved mugshots of criminals to video collected from CCTV cameras.

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

Privateness advocates in India imagine that such stepped-up movements underneath the pandemic may permit what they name 360 level surveillance, underneath which such things as housing, welfare, well being and different forms of information are all connected in combination to create a profile.

“Surveillance as of late is being posed as a technological panacea to very large social issues in India, which has introduced us very with regards to China,” Gupta stated. “There is not any legislation. There aren’t any safeguards. And that is common objective deployment of mass surveillance.”


What use will in the end be manufactured from the knowledge gathered and equipment advanced all the way through the peak of the pandemic stays an open query. However contemporary makes use of in Australia and the US might be offering a glimpse.

All over two years of strict border controls, Australia’s conservative former Top Minister Scott Morrison took the odd step of appointing himself minister of 5 departments, together with the Division of Well being. Government presented each nationwide and state-level apps to inform other people after they have been within the neighborhood of somebody who examined sure for the virus.

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

On the native point, other people used apps to faucet their telephones towards a web site’s QR code, logging their particular person ID in order that if a COVID-19 outbreak passed off, they might be contacted. The knowledge every so often was once used for different functions. Australian legislation enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in information as a type 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 information from the well being apps of two,439 drag racing fanatics who attended the December 2020 race. It incorporated names, cellphone numbers and arrival occasions.

Police accessed the tips regardless of Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan’s promise on Fb that the COVID-related information would best be obtainable to contact-tracing workforce on the Division of Well being. The homicide was once in the end solved the usage of fully conventional policing ways, together with footprint matching, cellular phone monitoring and in the end 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 information in reference to investigations. Police in each states didn’t deal with AP questions referring to why they sought the knowledge, and lawmakers in Queensland and Victoria have since tightened the foundations on police get admission to to QR check-in data.

Within the U.S., which depended on 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 knowledge mining and surveillance corporate Palantir Applied sciences Inc. to toughen the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Services and products’ pandemic reaction. Paperwork got by way of the immigrant rights crew Simply Futures Regulation underneath the Freedom of Knowledge Act and shared with the AP confirmed that federal officers pondered the best way to percentage information that went a long way past COVID-19.

The probabilities incorporated integrating “identifiable affected person information,” reminiscent of psychological well being, substance use and behavioral well being data from crew houses, shelters, jails, detox amenities and faculties. The U.S. Facilities for Illness Keep watch over does no longer use any of that individual-level data within the platform CDC now manages, stated Kevin Griffis, a division spokesman. Griffis stated he may no longer touch upon discussions that passed off underneath the former management.

The protocols seemed to lack data safeguards or utilization restrictions, stated Paromita Shah, Simply Futures Regulation’s govt director.

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

Remaining 12 months, the U.S. Facilities for Illness Keep watch over bought detailed cellular phone location information revealing other people’s day-to-day whereabouts, national. “Mobility insights” information from no less than 20 million gadgets might be used to “mission how a lot worse issues would were with out the bans,” reminiscent of stay-at-home orders and industry closures, in keeping with a July 2021 contract got by way of the nonprofit crew Tech Inquiry and shared with the AP.

The contract displays information dealer Cuebiq equipped a “tool ID,” which most often ties data to particular person cellphones. The CDC additionally may use the tips to inspect the impact of remaining borders, an emergency measure ordered by way of the Trump management and persisted by way of President Joe Biden, regardless of most sensible scientists’ objections that there was once no proof the motion would sluggish the coronavirus.

CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund stated the company got aggregated, nameless information 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 knowledge. The CDC may nonetheless get admission to combination, county-level cell phone information via October, a number of months after its contract ended, Cuebiq spokesman Invoice Daddi stated on Tuesday. He added that sooner than then, the CDC additionally can have analyzed privacy-protected particular person cell phone information, however selected to not.

For Scott-Railton, that units a perilous precedent.

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


Former AP video journalist Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this file 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 & Mum or dad 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 toughen from the Human Rights Middle Investigations Lab on the College of California, Berkeley. It was once partly supported by way of the Starling Lab for Virtual Integrity, co-founded by way of 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 international investigative staff at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/pointers/

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