There’s some honor amongst thieves

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Welcome to the latest edition of Pardon The Intrusion, TNW’s bi-weekly newsletter in which we explore the wild world of security.

If you own a smartphone, you’re probably being tracked as part of a surveillance system.

As the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, governments worldwide have turned to technology such as phone tracking and facial recognition to battle the virus and contain the outbreak.

These are unprecedented times we live in. But is it worth sacrificing personal privacy for the collective public good? Let’s go through how each country is handling it — strap in, this will be a long run down.

The US is said to be discussing plans to and deploy thermal cameras and amass location data from Google, Facebook, and telcos. Meanwhile, China and Russia have rolled out facial recognition thermometers and cameras to detect coronavirus symptoms and enforce quarantine orders; Hong Kong is slapping tracking bracelets on the wrists of all entrants to ensure no one breaks containment.

South Korea has resorted to CCTV footage and tracking of bank card and mobile phone usage to identify people who have been in contact with COVID-19 patients. But it’s also made public the places they visited before testing positive for the virus, potentially exposing their private lives.

Likewise, those entering Thailand and Vietnam from “at risk” countries are being provided with SIM cards so that they can download a government-mandated app that automatically tracks their location.

Taiwan has debuted a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that uses location tracking to make sure quarantined people stay in their homes, and alert police if they cross the perimeter or turn off their phones.

Iran, one of the worst affected countries, launched an Android app called “AC19” to diagnose coronavirus symptoms, but it also gathers precise movements of its citizens in real-time.

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Elsewhere in Europe, mobile carriers are sharing data (e.g. patterns of user movements) with the health authorities in Italy, Germany, and Austria to help monitor whether people are complying with curbs on movement, while also respecting GDPR laws — meaning the data collected is anonymous and aggregated.

Likewise, Israel has passed an emergency law that grants law enforcement access to the entire country’s cellphone location data. The Israeli Ministry of Health also released a new mobile app called “The Shield” that alerts users if they have been at a location at the same time as a known Coronavirus patient. To allay privacy concerns, the data is stored only locally and the complete source code has been made publicly available on GitHub.

In Singapore, the government is using text messages to contact people, who must click on a link to prove they are at home. That’s not all. The country launched a TraceTogether contact-tracing app (now open-sourced) that works by exchanging Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other participating users within a two-meter range.

Just like The Shield app, not only will the records of encounters be stored locally on the phone, it’s encrypted and doesn’t require access to a user’s location. “TraceTogether’s functionality will be suspended after the epidemic subsides,” reads the App Store description of the app.

Slovakia, inspired by similar legislation in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan, has passed a new law allowing state use of telecom data to track movements of people infected with the coronavirus to ensure they abide by quarantine rules. The government clarified that only limited data would be collected and that it would be used only in connection with the outbreak.

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Latest to join the location tracking bandwagon is India, which is currently in the midst of a 21-day long nationwide lockdown to avert the spread of the virus. The app, called CoWin-20 and presently in beta on both Android and iOS, aims to track individuals by smartphone location and Bluetooth signals to prevent community spread.


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