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Could Covid-19 cause a rise in government surveillance in Brazil?

Could Covid-19 cause a rise in government surveillance in Brazil?


Could Covid-19 cause a rise in government surveillance in Brazil?


Image: Panuwat Phimpha/Shutterstock

Just over a month after the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Brazil, the country is taking its first concrete measures to combat the virus. In public health, many states — such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo — have adopted social isolation to contain the spread of the virus and closed any businesses that are not considered essential.

The federative structure of Brazil means that state and municipal governments have a varying degree of authority to decide over certain measures within their boundaries. Isolation policies come under these devolved powers, and each state and municipality is following the path it sees fit. Some have moved toward tech and surveillance, with the northeastern city of Recife using cell phones to detect and crack down on public gatherings.

Using cell phone connections to the municipality’s antennas, authorities can determine whether there are large numbers of people in one place. When these agglomerations are detected, the cell phones in question receive warning messages from public health agencies asking them to remain at home. So far, 800,000 people have been screened, and 120,000 have been notified for breaching social isolation rules.

Rio de Janeiro is studying a similar policy, but without notifying infractors. The technology offered by TIM is the same used in Italy and other European countries.

In São Paulo, telecom company Vivo announced an agreement with the state government to analyze data on population displacement, allowing state administrators to access anonymous data to determine whether or not social isolation measures are being followed.

This monitoring was suggested by Christian Gebara, CEO of Vivo, during a teleconference between President Jair Bolsonaro and business owners on March 20. At the meeting, organized to help the federal government and the private sector find ways to overcome Covid-19, Mr. Gebara said all phone companies would be able to adopt this measure without exposing the privacy of citizens.

Data protection v. health surveillance

But such surveillance models — previously restricted to the fiction of Orwell and Huxley — raises questions about the limits of state control over populations. The case confronts Brazilians’ right to have their lives protected from state surveillance during a pandemic in which there is not yet a concrete public health solution.

Constitutionalist lawyer Gustavo Artese warns that the measure’s legality depends on its specific purpose. “The issue in this situation is the same as that faced by the [federal government’s] economic team. Economy Minister Paulo Guedes has already stated that he will have to disobey this year’s fiscal deficit goals due to the extraordinary circumstances. The idea regarding data from cell phone owners is the same. The measure is necessary at the moment, but it cannot remain forever,” explains Mr. Artese.

He also explains that the information collected must be discarded as soon as the notifications are sent out. The exception, according to the lawyer, would be the use of data for behavioral research to improve the fight against the virus, for example, to define which forms of social isolation will be best suited to a given region.

Alexandre Atheniense, a digital law specialist, details that measures such as those adopted in Recife need to be publicized so that the population knows what is happening and why specific actions are being taken. Without that, he says, there is disrespect for the individual rights of each citizen.

Mr. Atheniense recalls that Brazil’s new Data Protection Law — enacted at the end of 2019 and coming into force in August this year — imposes limits on practices such as these. One concerns the need for express consent from data owners for their information to be used for specific purposes.f

“If the initiative comes from the state, it must be based on the protection of health or the need for the functioning of essential services. These would be the justifications for consent to be waived,” says Mr. Atheniense.

War on terror

This use of cell phones in such measures is not new, but the scale of the initiative is. Bernardo Wahl, professor of international relations and a specialist in digital security, says that measures such as these are commonly used in counterterrorism actions. The danger, he says, is in the level of democracy of the government that makes use of this technology.

Countries such as the UK are talking to telecom companies and Google to define a policy to track people’s movements with the help of location data. South Korea has used this information to transmit alerts about patients’ age, sex, and location.

“But Saudi Arabia has already been accused of using powerful mobile spyware to hack the phones of dissidents and activists to monitor its activities. This happened to those who were close to the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi regime agents,” says Mr. Wahl.

Precisely for this reason, Mr. Wahl warns that the practice may result in perverse effects. “Increasing surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the door to more invasive future models. It is a lesson that the U.S. learned after 9/11,” adds the professor.


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