Majd Ramlawi was serving coffee in Jerusalem’s Old City when a chilling text message appeared on his phone. “You have been spotted as having participated in acts of violence in the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” it read in Arabic. “We will hold you accountable.” Ramlawi, then 19, was among hundreds of people who civil rights attorneys estimate got the text last year, at the height of one of the most turbulent periods in the Holy Land. Many, including Ramlawi, say they only lived or worked in the neighborhood, and had nothing to do with the unrest. What he didn’t know was that the feared internal security agency, the Shin Bet, was using mass surveillance technology mobilized for coronavirus contact tracing against Israeli residents and citizens for purposes entirely unrelated to COVID-19, the Associated Press reports. In the pandemic’s bewildering early days, millions worldwide believed government officials who said they needed confidential data for new tech tools that could help stop coronavirus’ spread. In return, governments got a firehose of individuals’ private health details, photographs that captured their facial measurements and their home addresses.
Now, from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, AP found that authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. In some cases, data were shared with spy agencies. The issue has taken on fresh urgency almost three years into the pandemic as China’s ultra-strict zero-COVID policies ignited the sharpest public rebuke of the country’s authoritarian leadership since the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. For more than a year, AP interviewed sources and pored over thousands of documents to trace how technologies marketed to “flatten the curve” were put to other uses. Just as the balance between privacy and national security shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has given officials justification to embed tracking tools that have lasted long after lockdowns.