IT expert warns of ‘digital surveillance’ in the name of fight against COVID-19


MANILA – A digital security expert has warned that the COVID-19 pandemic may turn digital surveillance into a so-called “new normal” as many governments flaunt their respective contact tracing applications and programs to fight the spread of the deadly virus.

Internews community manager Tom Banaria found it alarming that several surveillance infrastructure are being used on people to contain the virus. If this becomes a the normal, he said, it will be “very scary.”

“People are starting to accept that we need it so we can protect ourselves from COVID-19,” Banaria said during today’s Bulatlatan episode, titled “COVID-themed cyber attacks and how to protect yourself.”

Several international human rights watchdogs have earlier called out the attention of various governments on the increasing surveillance on the people, warning of possible human rights violations.

“Governments must be able to show that measures implemented are provided for by law and are necessary, proportionate, time-bound, and that they are implemented with transparency and adequate oversight,” Amnesty International said in a previous statement.

Previous case

This is not the first time that there has been an increase on digital surveillance in the name of protecting the people.

Amnesty International said government surveillance “expanded significantly” after the infamous 9/11 attacks. Once these capabilities and infrastructure are in place, the group said governments “seldom have the political will to roll them back.”

“What this means in practice is that surveillance measures must be the least intrusive available to achieve the desired result. They must not do more harm than good,” the Amnesty International said.

In early April, more than a hundred civil society groups have signed a joint statement, listing down at least eight conditions for governments who are resorting to digital surveillance amid the pandemic.

Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower, also warned that governments are using the pandemic to build “architecture of oppression.”

“As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world. Do you truly believe that when the first wave, this second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept? No matter how it is being used, what’ is being built is the architecture of oppression,” Snowden said in an interview with Vice TV.

Bulatlat managing editor Ronalyn Olea cited a report showing contact tracing apps being used in 29 countries.Here in the Philippines, a digital contact tracing app is being used in Cebu City to supposedly aid the combat against the COVID-19 pandemic. The project, however, is in partnership with the Cebu police.

Given the poor human rights record of the Philippine police, Olea said she would not personally vouch for this app.

Olea said a recent study claimed that at least 60 percent of the population would need to download the app for it to work but the more serious problem would be privacy concerns. Several studies have shown that even anonymized data sets are at risk from re-identification.

Preying on fear

Meanwhile, Banaria said they continue to monitor reports on cyber-attacks, particularly phishing attacks, that prey on the people’s fear of the pandemic.

He shared practical tips to protect oneself from online scams and cyber-attacks. These are:

1. Think before you click – Whenever working on your devices, always make sure that you are using a legitimate source. Always be vigilant especially whenever you are transacting via mobile banking.

2. Verify the link – Cyber-attackers usually hide the real URL to their compromised websites through link-shortening applications. To verify the legitimacy of the URL, you may visit

3. Use two-factor authentication – Using two-factor authentication as security measure can protect your email, social media accounts, and online banking transactions from hackers and cyber-criminals. (

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