Analysing responses to Covid-19

person wearing mask in the dark looking at phone

Data can be essential and useful at various stages of a pandemic and public health emergency. It can also feed intelligence and policing, being highly useful for enforcement. Finally, it can be valuable for commercial exploitation. The challenge before us now is which of these do we prioritise in specific settings.

In the context of Covid-19, our understanding is that:

  • in early stages of dealing with the pandemic, quick and effective contact tracing is invaluable to curb the spread, therefore knowing who people interacted with and where (interaction, proximity, and location data)
  • in the delay phase, tracing is not the highest priority and instead social distancing is more valued, and data can be used to monitor, develop policy, and for authorities enforce (location data becomes the priority)
  • generally tracking the use of public health resources is useful to allocate resources effectively, e.g. where should ventilators and masks and test be deployed (this is mostly logistics and health data held by hospitals and other health providers)
  • in the later phases, contact tracing may again be valuable, as can the use of enforcement mechanisms (interaction, proximity, and location data).

Data and technologies play different roles at each of these stages. But different levels of data and types of technologies too; and different legal and technical safeguards as well may apply.

PI has been tracking the developments across the world and is trying to differentiate between the various forms of health surveillance, policing, commercial exploitation (and some attempts at legitimisation), and surveillance opportunism.

If governments and industry had been more attentive to legality, security, and privacy in the run up to this crisis, everyone could have more confidence in the deployment of new measures. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is thus difficult to separate ambition from necessary response; desirable graphing from social graphing; health surveillance from policing surveillance; health and safety from workplace surveillance.


Ten civil society organisations submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights


The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), and Privacy International (PI) joined together to track the negative impacts of surveillance technology and measures deployed during the Covid-19 pandemic on activist movements and organizations, in collaboration with local organizations and researchers in 6 countries.

Long Read

Privacy International ("PI") researched a number of social safety-net projects financed by the World Bank during the COVID-19 pandemic. To inform the World Bank's future implementation of these kinds of projects, this article reflects on how certain aspects of social protection projects can inadvertently lead to excessive surveillance of marginalised communities, impact equal access to urgent social protection disbursements, and interfere with people's dignity and right to privacy.

Long Read

Privacy International has been researching how emergency welfare responses have been handled in different countries in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the variety of socio-economic and political contexts of the countries researched, PI has found that a lot of them share common concerning elements along the benefit disbursement process, namely the automation of eligibility processes, lack of transparency, excessive data collection, security issues in disbursement methods and more.


This week we talk to Juan Diego from Fundación Karisma - one of our  partners based in Colombia - about the use of technology in the response to the Covid pandemic and their report "Useless and Dangerous: A Critical Exploration of Covid Applications and Their Human Rights Impacts in Colombia".

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Immunity passports could involve the restricting peoples' liberties of individuals on the basis of their' immunity status, or lack of it.

News & Analysis

We’re part of a coalition asking data protection authorities, policymakers, edtech providers, and educators to take the following steps to protect children around the world.

News & Analysis

Marking International Health Day amidst a global pandemic gives us a chance to reflect on how we are responding to Covid-19 through the use of data and technology.

News & Analysis

Companies all over the world are pitching data products, services & solutions to Coronavirus - from big tech to companies that might not be household names but PI has long challenged for their exploitative data practices. Here we set out examples and the key points for companies to consider.

Key Resources

Quarantining is a significant interference with rights, which is why it is only recommended to be done under the advisement of health professionals. Using tech and data to do this can be particularly problematic.

Key Resources

Considering the billions of people who have smart phones generally use apps on these devices, it's possible to reach people and draw extensive data from their devices.

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Telecommunications firms, including mobile operators, have extensive data on their customers, including location and contact data -- they and governments are keen to exploit this data.

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Tech companies, governments, and international agencies have all announced measures to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world.