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Police seize on COVID-19 tech to increase international surveillance

Huizhong Wu

China correspondent primarily based in Taiwan



December 21, 2022 GMT

JERUSALEM (AP) — Majd Ramlawi was serving espresso in Jerusalem’s Outdated Metropolis when a chilling textual content message appeared on his telephone.

“You could have been noticed as having participated in acts of violence within the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” it learn in Arabic. “We’ll maintain you accountable.”

Ramlawi, then 19, was amongst lots of of people that civil rights attorneys estimate obtained the textual content final yr, on the peak of one of the turbulent current durations within the Holy Land. Many, together with Ramlawi, say they solely lived or labored within the neighborhood, and had nothing to do with the unrest. What he didn’t know was that the dreaded inner safety company, the Shin Wager, was utilizing mass surveillance know-how mobilized for coronavirus contact tracing, in opposition to Israeli residents and residents for functions fully unrelated to COVID-19.

Within the pandemic’s bewildering early days, hundreds of thousands worldwide believed authorities officers who mentioned they wanted confidential information for brand spanking new tech instruments that might assist cease coronavirus’ unfold. In return, governments obtained a firehose of people’ personal well being particulars, pictures that captured their facial measurements and their house addresses.

Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, The Related Press has discovered that authorities used these applied sciences and information to halt journey for activists and odd individuals, harass marginalized communities and hyperlink individuals’s well being info to different surveillance and legislation enforcement instruments. In some instances, information was shared with spy businesses. The problem has taken on recent urgency virtually three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID insurance policies not too long ago ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the nation’s authoritarian management for the reason that pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Sq. in 1989.

For greater than a yr, AP journalists interviewed sources and pored over 1000’s of paperwork to hint how applied sciences marketed to “flatten the curve” have been put to different makes use of. Simply because the stability between privateness and nationwide safety shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults, COVID-19 has given officers justification to embed monitoring instruments in society which have lasted lengthy after lockdowns.

“Any intervention that will increase state energy to watch people has a protracted tail and is a ratcheting system,” mentioned John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher on the Toronto-based web watchdog Citizen Lab. “When you get it, could be very unlikely it is going to ever go away.”


In China, the final main nation on this planet to implement strict COVID-19 lockdowns, residents have been required to put in cell-phone apps to maneuver about freely in most cities. Drawing from telecommunications information and PCR take a look at outcomes, the apps produce particular person QR codes that change 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 which have pushed the general public to a breaking level. When an condo hearth in Urumqi final month left not less than 10 lifeless, many blamed zero-tolerance COVID insurance policies. That sparked demonstrations in main cities nationwide, the most important show of defiance in a long time, after which the federal government introduced it might solely verify well being codes in “particular locations,” equivalent to colleges, hospitals and nursing properties.

Final week, the federal government went additional, saying it might shut down a national-level well being code to ease journey between provinces. However cities and provinces have their very own codes, which have been extra dominant. In Beijing final week, eating places, workplaces, motels and gymnasiums have been nonetheless requiring native codes for entry.

Over the previous few years, Chinese language residents have wanted a inexperienced code to board home flights or trains, and in some cities even to enter the grocery store or to get on a bus. In the event that they have been discovered to have been in shut contact with somebody who examined optimistic for COVID-19, or if the federal government imposed an area quarantine, the code would flip crimson, and so they have been caught at house.

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


This story, supported by the Pulitzer Heart on Disaster Reporting, is a part of an ongoing Related Press sequence, “Tracked,” that investigates the facility and penalties of choices pushed by algorithms on individuals’s on a regular basis lives.


In early September, former wealth supervisor Yang Jiahao purchased a practice ticket to Beijing, the place he deliberate to lodge varied complaints with the central authorities. The evening earlier than, a girl he described as a handler invited him to dinner. Handlers are often employed by state safety as a part of “stability upkeep” operations and may require individuals to satisfy or journey when authorities fear they may trigger bother. Yang had a meal with the handler, and the following morning Guangzhou well being authorities reported a COVID-19 case lower than a kilometer from the place they dined, he mentioned.

Primarily based on metropolis rules, Yang’s code ought to have turned yellow, requiring him to take a couple of COVID checks to indicate he was destructive.

As an alternative, the app turned crimson, regardless that checks confirmed that he didn’t have COVID. Yang was ordered to quarantine and a paper seal was positioned on his door.

“They’ll do no matter they need,” he mentioned.

An officer on the Huangcun station of the Guangzhou police referred remark to city-level authorities on Yang’s case, saying he required proof that the caller was from the AP. Guangzhou’s Public Safety Bureau and town’s Heart for Illness Management and Prevention didn’t reply to faxed requests for remark.

In one other present of how the apps can management lives, in June, a bunch of financial institution clients have been successfully corralled by the well being codes after they tried going to Henan’s provincial capital in Zhengzhou to protest being unable to entry their on-line financial institution accounts.

A discover mentioned the issue was as a consequence of a system improve. However the clients quickly discovered the true cause: a police investigation into stockholders within the dad or mum financial institution had rendered 40 billion yuan in funds inaccessible, in accordance with native media experiences. Annoyed after months of complaints, a bunch 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 destructive for COVID-19 in his coastal metropolis of Tianjin, simply south of Beijing. As he obtained off the practice in Zhengzhou, Xu was requested to scan his QR code on the station, and instantly it turned crimson. The practice station worker known as safety and took him to a police sales space.

Xu mentioned police took him to the basement to quarantine. Three different individuals joined him, and all 4 realized that that they had come to get their a reimbursement.

“They’d set the web in place, ready for us,” Xu mentioned.

From a bunch chat, Xu and others discovered that many protesters had met an identical destiny, on the high-speed rail practice station, on the airport and even on the freeway. A authorities inquiry later discovered that crimson codes got to 1,317 individuals, lots of whom had deliberate to protest.

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

Even after China ends lockdowns, some dissidents and human rights activists predict the local-level well being codes will keep on as a technological technique of social management. Early on, provinces didn’t share information, however previously few years, that has modified.

Some provincial governments have created native apps that may hyperlink well being, location and even credit score info, which leaves open the chance for these apps or the nationwide databases they draw from for use to watch individuals sooner or later, in accordance with an AP overview of procurement paperwork, analysis and interviews. Xu and Yang, for example, have been each stopped of their tracks by native well being codes.

In February, police in northeastern Heilongjiang province sought to improve their native well being code so they may search PCR take a look at outcomes for anybody in China, in actual time, in accordance with procurement paperwork offered completely by ChinaFile, a digital journal printed by the Asia Society. An organization whose dad or mum is government-owned gained the non-competitive bid to attach that app to a nationwide database of PCR information run by the State Council, China’s Cupboard, fulfilling a nationwide directive, the paperwork present. The identical firm, Beijing Beiming Digital Expertise, additionally claims on its web site that it has developed greater than 30 pandemic apps.

“It’s the governance mannequin, the philosophy behind it’s to strengthen social management by know-how. It’s strengthened by the well being app, and it’s positively going to remain after COVID is over,” mentioned Yaqiu Wang, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch. “I feel it’s very, very highly effective.”


In Jerusalem’s Outdated Metropolis, vacationers sipping recent pomegranate juice, worshippers and locals taking a shortcut house are all monitored by Israeli safety forces holding automated weapons. The labyrinth of cavernous pathways can also be lined with CCTV cameras and what authorities have described as “superior applied sciences.”

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

By that point, Israelis had turn into accustomed to police displaying up outdoors their properties to say they weren’t observing quarantine and knew that Israel’s Shin Wager safety company was repurposing telephone surveillance know-how it had beforehand used to watch militants inside Palestinian territories. The apply made headlines at the beginning of the pandemic when the Israeli authorities mentioned it might be deployed for COVID-19 contact tracing.

A yr later, the Shin Wager quietly started utilizing the identical know-how to ship threatening messages to Israel’s Arab residents and residents whom the company suspected of collaborating in violent clashes with police. A number of the recipients, nonetheless, merely lived or labored within the space, or have been mere passers-by.

Ramlawi’s coffeeshop sits within the ornate Cotton Service provider’s Market outdoors the mosque compound, an space lined with police and safety cameras that seemingly would have recognized the barista had he participated in violence.

Though Ramlawi deleted the message and hasn’t obtained an identical one since, he mentioned the considered his telephone getting used as a monitoring instrument nonetheless haunts him.

“It’s like the federal government is in your bag,” mentioned Ramlawi, who worries that surveillance enabled to cease COVID-19 poses an enduring menace for east Jerusalem residents. “Once 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 Israel, in addition to questions on its accuracy. The Ministry of Communications, which oversees Israel’s telecommunications corporations, refused a request looking for additional particulars submitted for the AP by the Motion for Freedom of Info, a nonprofit that regularly works with media organizations.

Gil Gan-Mor, an lawyer with the nonprofit Affiliation for Civil Rights in Israel, estimates that lots of of Arabs in Jerusalem obtained the threatening message throughout the unrest and mentioned the mass textual content message blast was unprecedented.

“You can’t simply say to individuals, ‘We’re watching you … and we’ll get revenge,” he mentioned. “You can’t use this instrument to frighten individuals. When you’ve got one thing in opposition to somebody, you possibly can put them on trial.’”

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

“There was a transparent safety must ship an pressing message to a really giant variety of individuals, all of whom had a reputable suspicion of being concerned in performing violent crimes,” the company mentioned in a authorized submitting final yr. The submitting, signed by “Daniella B.,” the Shin Wager’s authorized adviser for the Jerusalem district, additionally acknowledged that “classes have been discovered.”

In February, Israel’s lawyer common upheld the continued use of the know-how, saying it was a official safety instrument, whereas acknowledging glitches within the system and that messages have been distributed to a small variety of unintended targets. Israel’s Supreme Court docket is now reviewing the matter.

Sami Abu Shehadeh, a former Arab lawmaker who served in Israel’s parliament on the time Shin Wager despatched its warning texts, mentioned the messages reveal the broader struggles of Israel’s 20% Arab minority.

“The state doesn’t take care of us as residents,” he mentioned. “There are two units of legal guidelines — one for Jews and one for Arabs.”


Applied sciences designed to fight COVID-19 have been redirected by legislation enforcement and intelligence providers in different democracies as governments expanded their digital arsenals amid the pandemic.

In India, facial recognition and synthetic intelligence know-how exploded after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Celebration swept into energy in 2014, changing into a instrument for police to watch mass gatherings. The nation is looking for to construct what shall be among the many world’s largest facial recognition networks.

Because the pandemic took maintain in early 2020, state and central governments tasked native police with implementing masks mandates. Fines of as much as $25, as a lot as 12 days’ pay for some laborers and unaffordable for the practically 230 million individuals estimated to be residing in poverty in India, have been launched in some locations.

Within the south-central metropolis of Hyderabad, police began taking photos of individuals flaunting the masks mandate or just sporting masks haphazardly.

Police Commissioner C.V. Anand mentioned town has spent lots of of hundreds of thousands of {dollars} lately on patrol autos, CCTV cameras, facial recognition and geo-tracking functions and several other hundred facial recognition cameras, amongst different applied sciences powered by algorithms or machine studying. Inside Hyderabad’s Command and Management Heart, officers confirmed an AP reporter how they run CCTV digicam footage by facial recognition software program that scans pictures in opposition to a database of offenders.

“When (corporations) resolve to put money into a metropolis, they first have a look at the law-and-order scenario,” Anand mentioned, defending the usage of such instruments as completely crucial. “Individuals listed here are conscious of what the applied sciences can do, and there may be healthful help for it.”

By Could 2020, the police chief of Telangana state tweeted about his division rolling out AI-based software program utilizing CCTV to zero-in on individuals not sporting masks. The tweet included pictures of the software program overlaying coloured rectangles on the maskless faces of unsuspecting locals.

Greater than a yr later, police tweeted pictures of themselves utilizing hand-held tablets to scan individuals’s faces utilizing facial recognition software program, in accordance with a put up from the official Twitter deal with of the station home officer within the Amberpet neighborhood.

Police mentioned the tablets, which might take odd pictures or hyperlink them to a facial recognition database of criminals, have been a helpful means for officers to catch and fantastic masks offenders.

“Once they see somebody not sporting a masks, they go as much as them, take a photograph on their pill, take down their particulars like telephone quantity and identify,” mentioned B Guru Naidu, an inspector in Hyderabad’s South Zone.

Officers resolve who they deem suspicious, stoking fears amongst privateness advocates, some Muslims and members of Hyderabad’s lower-caste communities.

“If the patrolling officers suspect any particular person, they take their fingerprints or scan their face – the app on the pill will then verify these for any previous prison antecedents,” Naidu mentioned.

S Q Masood, a social activist who has led authorities transparency campaigns in Hyderabad, sees extra at stake. Masood and his father-in-law have been seemingly stopped at random by police in Shahran market, a predominantly Muslim space, throughout a COVID-19 surge final yr. Masood mentioned officers informed him to take away his masks so they may {photograph} him with a pill.

“I informed them I gained’t take away my masks. They then requested me why not, and I informed them I can’t take away my masks.” He mentioned they photographed him with it in place. Again house, Masood went from bewildered to anxious: The place and the way was this photograph for use? Would it not be added to the police’s facial recognition database?

Now he’s suing within the Telangana Excessive Court docket to seek out out why his photograph was taken and to restrict the widespread use of facial recognition. His case might set the tone for India’s rising ambition to mix rising know-how with legislation enforcement on this planet’s largest democracy, specialists mentioned.

India lacks an information safety legislation and even present proposals gained’t regulate surveillance applied sciences in the event that they turn into legislation, mentioned Apar Gupta, government director of the New Delhi-based Web Freedom Basis, which helps to signify Masood.

Police responded to Masood’s lawsuit and denied utilizing facial recognition in his case, saying that his {photograph} was not scanned in opposition to any database and that facial recognition is simply used throughout the investigation of a criminal offense or suspected crime, when it may be run in opposition to CCTV footage.

In two separate AP interviews, native police demonstrated each how the TSCOP app carried by police on the road can examine an individual’s {photograph} to a facial recognition database of criminals, and the way from the Command and Management Heart police can use facial recognition evaluation to check saved mugshots of criminals to video gathered from CCTV cameras.

Masood’s attorneys are engaged on a response and awaiting a listening to date.

Privateness advocates in India consider that such stepped-up actions beneath the pandemic might allow what they name 360 diploma surveillance, beneath which issues like housing, welfare, well being and different kinds of information are all linked collectively to create a profile.

“Surveillance immediately is being posed as a technological panacea to giant social issues in India, which has introduced us very near China,” Gupta mentioned. “There isn’t a legislation. There aren’t any safeguards. And that is common goal deployment of mass surveillance.”


What use will in the end be made from the information collected and instruments developed throughout the peak of the pandemic stays an open query. However current makes use of in Australia and the USA could provide a glimpse.

Throughout two years of strict border controls, Australia’s conservative former Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the extraordinary step of appointing himself minister of 5 departments, together with the Division of Well being. Authorities launched each nationwide and state-level apps to inform individuals after they had been within the neighborhood of somebody who examined optimistic for the virus.

However the apps have been additionally utilized in different methods. Australia’s intelligence businesses have been caught “by the way” amassing information from the nationwide COVIDSafe app. Information of the breach surfaced in a November 2020 report by the Inspector-Basic of Intelligence and Safety, which mentioned there was no proof that the information was decrypted, accessed or used. The nationwide app was canceled in August by a brand new administration as a waste of cash: it had recognized solely two optimistic COVID-19 instances that wouldn’t have been discovered in any other case.

On the native degree, individuals 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 occurred, they could possibly be contacted. The information generally was used for different functions. Australian legislation enforcement co-opted the state-level QR check-in information as a kind of digital dragnet to analyze crimes.

After biker gang boss Nick Martin was 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 followers who attended the December 2020 race. It included names, telephone numbers and arrival occasions.

Police accessed the knowledge regardless of Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan’s promise on Fb that the COVID-related information would solely be accessible to contact-tracing personnel on the Division of Well being. The homicide was finally solved utilizing fully conventional policing ways, together with footprint matching, cellphone 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 relating to why they sought the information, and lawmakers in Queensland and Victoria have since tightened the foundations on police entry to QR check-in info.

Within the U.S., which relied on a hodge-podge of state and native quarantine orders to make sure compliance with COVID guidelines, the federal authorities took the chance to construct out its surveillance toolkit, together with two contracts in 2020 price $24.9 million to the information mining and surveillance firm Palantir Applied sciences Inc. to help the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Companies’ pandemic response. Paperwork obtained by the immigrant rights group Simply Futures Legislation beneath the Freedom of Info Act and shared with the AP confirmed that federal officers contemplated the right way to share information that went far past COVID-19.

The probabilities included integrating “identifiable affected person information,” equivalent to psychological well being, substance use and behavioral well being info from group properties, shelters, jails, detox services and colleges. The U.S. Facilities for Illness Management doesn’t use any of that individual-level info within the platform CDC now manages, mentioned Kevin Griffis, a division spokesman. Griffis mentioned he couldn’t touch upon discussions that occurred beneath the earlier administration.

The protocols appeared to lack info safeguards or utilization restrictions, mentioned Paromita Shah, Simply Futures Legislation’s government director.

“What the pandemic did was blow up an business of mass assortment of biometric and biographical information,” Shah mentioned. “So, few issues have been off the desk.”

Final yr, the U.S. Facilities for Illness Management bought detailed cellphone location information revealing individuals’s day by day whereabouts, nationwide. “Mobility insights” information from not less than 20 million units could possibly be used to “mission how a lot worse issues would have been with out the bans,” equivalent to stay-at-home orders and enterprise closures, in accordance with a July 2021 contract obtained by the nonprofit group Tech Inquiry and shared with the AP.

The contract reveals information dealer Cuebiq offered a “gadget ID,” which usually ties info to particular person cell telephones. The CDC additionally might use the knowledge to look at the impact of closing borders, an emergency measure ordered by the Trump administration and continued by President Joe Biden, regardless of high scientists’ objections that there was no proof the motion would sluggish the coronavirus.

CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund mentioned the company acquired 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 nonetheless utilizing the information. The CDC might nonetheless entry combination, county-level cell phone information by October, a number of months after its contract ended, Cuebiq spokesman Invoice Daddi mentioned on Tuesday. He added that earlier than then, the CDC additionally might have analyzed privacy-protected particular person cell phone information, however selected to not.

For Scott-Railton, that units a harmful precedent.

“What COVID did was speed up state use of those instruments and that information and normalize it, so it match a story about there being a public profit,” he mentioned. “Now the query is, are we going to be able to having a reckoning round the usage of this information, or is that this the brand new regular?”


Former AP video journalist Rishabh R. Jain contributed to this report from Hyderabad, India. AP staffers Lori Hinnant contributed from Paris; María Verza from Mexico Metropolis; 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 Chief Kathy Gannon additionally contributed. Deputy Editor of The Mail & Guardian 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 produced in collaboration with researcher Avani Yadav with help from the Human Rights Heart Investigations Lab on the College of California, Berkeley. It was partially supported by the Starling Lab for Digital Integrity, co-founded by the College of Southern California and Stanford College, the place Burke was a journalism fellow.


Comply with Garance Burke on Twitter at @garanceburke. Contact AP’s international investigative staff at or

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