Governments around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic as their reason for expanding digital surveillance and collecting more data from their citizens, according to a report published Wednesday.The annual FILE – People wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus use their smartphones to enter their personal data before being allowed to enter a pedestrian shopping street in Beijing, May 16, 2020.The report again singled out China for specific criticism as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom, but Beijing also found new methods of digital surveillance in the pandemic.The report noted that Chinese authorities combined low- and high-tech tools not only to manage the outbreak of the coronavirus, but also to deter internet users from sharing information from independent sources and challenging the official narrative.The report concluded “the pandemic is normalizing the sort of digital authoritarianism that the Chinese Communist Party has long sought to mainstream.”“China’s government already was sitting on the most sophisticated and multilayered censorship and internet control apparatus around the world,” said Sarah Cook, a senior researcher at Freedom House.Technology spreadsShe added that what is unusual this year with COVID-19 is these tactics were being used regarding public health. Surveillance technology developed in the Xinjiang region — such as handheld devices for pulling data from citizens’ phones — is now proliferating in other parts of the country.There also are certain upgrades in these surveillance technologies, such as refining facial recognition technology to be able to identify people who are wearing masks or forcing people to use various color-coded health apps in China to track citizens’ infections.“These really don’t protect privacy and there are research initiatives that indicated that they even had a backdoor to the police,” Cook continued.FILE – A man holding a smartphone walks past the headquarters of Chinese state newspaper People’s Daily in Beijing, Oct. 6, 2018.In addition, Freedom House researchers say individuals around China also have reported pandemic-related intrusions, like being told to put webcams inside their houses and outside their doors for alleged quarantine enforcement.Apart from the heavy surveillance, Cook said the spread of COVID-19 is directly related to Chinese Communist Party speech controls on the internet.WeChat users
“The very thing we flagged last year as a problem in terms of monitoring of WeChat users and reprisals against WeChat users is exactly what happened to doctors like Li Wenliang, who initially tried to share information about this emerging SARS-like virus,” she said.“So, I think there’s really this very intimate connection between the outbreak overall and the fact that China is the worst abuser of internet freedom around the world.”Elsewhere in the world, Iceland is said to have the greatest internet freedom, followed by Estonia and Canada. The report listed U.S. in seventh place, with internet freedom worsening for the fourth year running. 

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