States’ use of surveillance to fight pandemic must respect human rights

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship is among 107 organisations that are urging governments to respect human rights and civil liberties as they attempt to tackle the coronavirus pandemic through digital surveillance technologies.

“As the coronavirus continues to spread and threaten public health, governments are taking unprecedented actions to bring it under control. But the pandemic must not be used to usher in invasive digital surveillance,” said Jessica Ní Mhainín, Policy Research and Advocacy Officer at Index on Censorship. “Measures must have a legal basis, be targeted exclusively at curtailing the virus, and have safeguards in place to prevent violations of privacy.”


The Covid-19 pandemic is a global public health emergency that requires a coordinated and large-scale response by governments worldwide. However, states’ efforts to contain the virus must not be used as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance.

We, the undersigned organisations, urge governments to show leadership in tackling the pandemic in a way that ensures that the use of digital technologies to track and monitor individuals and populations is carried out strictly in line with human rights.

Technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives, such as to spread public health messages and increase access to health care. However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in ways that could violate rights and degrade trust in public authorities – undermining the effectiveness of any public health response. Such measures also pose a risk of discrimination and may disproportionately harm already marginalised communities.

These are extraordinary times, but human rights law still applies. Indeed, the human rights framework is designed to ensure that different rights can be carefully balanced to protect individuals and wider societies. States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis. On the contrary, protecting human rights also promotes public health. Now more than ever, governments must rigorously ensure that any restrictions to these rights is in line with long-established human rights safeguards.

This crisis offers an opportunity to demonstrate our shared humanity. We can make extraordinary efforts to fight this pandemic that are consistent with human rights standards and the rule of law. The decisions that governments make now to confront the pandemic will shape what the world looks like in the future.

We call on all governments not to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic with increased digital surveillance unless the following conditions are met:

1. Surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic must be lawful, necessary and proportionate. They must be provided for by law and must be justified by legitimate public health objectives, as determined by the appropriate public health authorities, and be proportionate to those needs. Governments must be transparent about the measures they are taking so that they can be scrutinized and if appropriate later modified, retracted, or overturned. We cannot allow the Covid-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for indiscriminate mass surveillance.

2. If governments expand monitoring and surveillance powers then such powers must be time-bound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current pandemic. We cannot allow the Covid-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for indefinite surveillance.

3. States must ensure that increased collection, retention, and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Data collected, retained, and aggregated to respond to the pandemic must be limited in scope, time-bound in relation to the pandemic and must not be used for commercial or any other purposes. We cannot allow the Covid-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse to gut individuals’ right to privacy.

4. Governments must take every effort to protect people’s data, including ensuring sufficient security of any personal data collected and of any devices, applications, networks, or services involved in collection, transmission, processing, and storage. Any claims that data is anonymous must be based on evidence and supported with sufficient information regarding how it has been anonymised. We cannot allow attempts to respond to this pandemic to be used as justification for compromising people’s digital safety.

5. Any use of digital surveillance technologies in responding to Covid-19, including big data and artificial intelligence systems, must address the risk that these tools will facilitate discrimination and other rights abuses against racial minorities, people living in poverty, and other marginalised populations, whose needs and lived realities may be obscured or misrepresented in large datasets. We cannot allow the Covid-19 pandemic to further increase the gap in the enjoyment of human rights between different groups in society.

6. If governments enter into data sharing agreements with other public or private sector entities, they must be based on law, and the existence of these agreements and information necessary to assess their impact on privacy and human rights must be publicly disclosed – in writing, with sunset clauses, public oversight and other safeguards by default. Businesses involved in efforts by governments to tackle Covid-19 must undertake due diligence to ensure they respect human rights, and ensure any intervention is firewalled from other business and commercial interests. We cannot allow the Covid-19 pandemic to serve as an excuse for keeping people in the dark about what information their governments are gathering and sharing with third parties.

7. Any response must incorporate accountability protections and safeguards against abuse. Increased surveillance efforts related to Covid-19 should not fall under the domain of security or intelligence agencies and must be subject to effective oversight by appropriate independent bodies. Further, individuals must be given the opportunity to know about and challenge any Covid-19 related measures to collect, aggregate, and retain, and use data. Individuals who have been subjected to surveillance must have access to effective remedies.

8. Covid-19 related responses that include data collection efforts should include means for free, active, and meaningful participation of relevant stakeholders, in particular experts in the public health sector and the most marginalized population groups.

7amleh – Arab Center for Social Media Advancement
Access Now
African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms Coalition
AI Now
Algorithm Watch
Alternatif Bilisim
Amnesty International
Asociación para una Ciudadanía Participativa, ACI Participa
Association for Progressive Communications (APC)
ASUTIC, Senegal
Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization
Barracón Digital
Big Brother Watch
Bits of Freedom
Center for Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD)
Center for Digital Democracy
Center for Economic Justice
Centro De Estudios Constitucionales y de Derechos Humanos de Rosario
Chaos Computer Club – CCC
Citizen D / Državljan D
Civil Liberties Union for Europe
Coding Rights
Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social
Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA)
Comité por la Libre Expresión (C-Libre)
Committee to Protect Journalists
Consumer Action
Consumer Federation of America
Cooperativa Tierra Común
Creative Commons Uruguay
D3 – Defesa dos Direitos Digitais
Data Privacy Brasil
Democratic Transition and Human Rights Support Center “DAAM”
Derechos Digitales
Digital Rights Lawyers Initiative (DRLI)
Digital Security Lab Ukraine
European Digital Rights – EDRi
Foundation for Information Policy Research
Foundation for Media Alternatives
Fundación Acceso (Centroamérica)
Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo, Ecuador
Fundación Datos Protegidos
Fundación Internet Bolivia
Fundación Taigüey, República Dominicana
Fundación Vía Libre
Hermes Center
Homo Digitalis
Human Rights Watch
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union
ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies
Index on Censorship
Initiative für Netzfreiheit
Innovation for Change – Middle East and North Africa
International Commission of Jurists
International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
Intervozes – Coletivo Brasil de Comunicação Social
Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)
IT-Political Association of Denmark
Iuridicum Remedium z.s. (IURE)
La Quadrature du Net
Liberia Information Technology Student Union
Masaar “Community for Technology and Law”
Media Rights Agenda (Nigeria)
MENA Rights Group
Metamorphosis Foundation
New America’s Open Technology Institute
Open Data Institute
Open Rights Group
OutRight Action International
Panoptykon Foundation
Paradigm Initiative (PIN)
PEN International
Privacy International
Public Citizen
Public Knowledge
R3D: Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales
SHARE Foundation
Skyline International for Human Rights
Swedish Consumers’ Association
Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
Tech Inquiry
The Bachchao Project
Unwanted Witness, Uganda
World Wide Web Foundation


China: Suppression of religious freedoms in Xinjiang continues

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

During China’s Cultural Revolution the Uyghur linguist Ibrahim Mutte’i, who helped compile a comprehensive multilingual dictionary, was tortured in the pursuit of cultural conformity by having large volumes of his edited dictionary dropped on his head.

Although the Cultural Revolution resonates as an extreme moment in China’s modern history, today the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to develop expansive legal and political frameworks that repress the cultural and religious freedoms of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang province.

China maintains a stifling grip on the largely Muslim minority Uyghurs of Xinjiang. Aspirations for greater autonomy are repressed through ambiguous and far-reaching criminal laws that equate expressions of independence with separatism and terrorism. Severe restrictions in cultural and religious freedoms are part of considered government policy and Uyghurs are practically the only minority group subject to structural executions for religious offences.

Narratives of “terrorism”, external threats and fanatical separatism have been successfully produced and reproduced by the CCP, to confront ethnic problems in Xinjiang and delegitimise criticisms of government policy. The post 9/11 context has enabled the CCP to widen the scope of “terror” offences in its criminal code, where potential crimes include the dissemination of information and public gatherings that “disturb social order”. Rights to free assembly and expression, alongside peaceful protests are prohibited through punitive legal frameworks.

Expansive definitions of terrorism to include any “non-state” action decontextualise violence in Xinjiang as isolated extremism and privilege national security over individual human rights. By externalising ethnic discord, the CCP denies the existence of legitimate dissent and acts with domestic impunity.

The abuse of national security and anti-terror laws to marginalise and censor free speech are emphasised in the recent arrest of prominent Uyghur intellectual Ilham Tohti.

In a statement released by the Bureau of Public Security in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, Tohti is charged with promoting “Xinjiang independence”, the spread of separatism and ethnic discord, sending followers overseas to engage in separatist activities and praising individuals involved in “terrorist” attacks. China’s state-owned newspaper, the People’s Daily, commented that “police authorities have uncovered the concrete evidence behind Ilham Tohti’s separatist activities”.

Tohti has not joined calls for an independent East Turkestan but questioned the impact of economic, social and cultural policies in Xinjiang, and advocated for better treatment of Uyghurs. His arrest and official discourses explaining his crimes point to the criminalisation of dissent and a predictable pattern whereby challenges to state power are not tolerated.

Alongside the political and legal frameworks deployed to proscribe freedom of expression, curtailments of religious and cultural self-determination continue unabated. A recent Project Beauty campaign endorsed by the provincial government in Kashgar, ostensibly to promote “beauty” and “modern culture”, registered veiled women and bearded men at checkpoints in attempts to discourage expressions of Islamic and Uyghur identity.

The Uyghur Human Rights Council documents the indiscriminate targeting of religious practice. Outward expressions of faith at state institutions are forbidden, with public signs ostracising Islamic dress through explanations such as “women and girls, open your veils, don’t disturb modern civilised society”. In addition Uyghur language is being systematically eliminated from tertiary institutions, and classes on Uyghur literature, instructed entirely in Chinese, have been subject to inspection by “language police”.

Local religious leaders must complete compulsory political training through the state-run Islamic Association of China, which provides the Islamic clergy with a collection of state-sanctioned sermons and “approved” copies of the Koran. Private religious education is banned and those found to facilitate the independent tuition of Islam or in possession of non-approved literature, are often charged with “illegal” religious activity.

Furthermore, state employees and anyone under the age of 18 cannot enter a mosque. These measures point to a comprehensive draconian system of censorship, with Uyghurs arrested for offences such as “possession of wrong books” and “teaching the Koran”.

A report from Human Rights Watch, citing the official document A Manual for Urumqi Municipality Ethnic Religious Work, provides further evidence of the flagrant denial of civil and political rights. The manual identifies illegal religious activities to include: “inciting the masses to illegally rally and demonstrate”; “distorting history”; going abroad to study religion or engaging in any kind of religious activity that “span[s] different localities”; and carrying out activities “harmful to the good order of society”. These highly ambiguous injunctions restrict not only freedoms of religious belief, but also deny free expression and freedom of movement under virtually any pretext.

The tragic reality of Xinjiang is that a multidimensional system of surveillance, control and religious suppression has exacerbated an ongoing human rights crisis. Although the number of missing Uyghurs is difficult to verify, most estimates point to the arbitrary detention of thousands every year for “illegal” religious activity.

The signs in 2014, of continued violent “separatist” attacks and aggressive state crackdowns, should alarm the international community as controls seem likely to escalate. Beyond the political disenfranchisement, economic exploitation and cultural erosion of Uyghur identity, CCP assimilationist policies ironically serve only to reinforce a sense of alienation and difference.

This article was posted on 3 Feb 2014 at

Social media changing the protest landscape in China


Despite state censorship and political repression, social media is changing the protest landscape in China.

With the exception of economic reform that started in the late 1970’s, the country has remained restricted by government policy and ideology. A one party state has led to a national media that lacks plurality and regularly fails to report on incidents that they fear may damage the government’s image. Combined with internet censoring and heavy-handed tactics being employed against state opposition, freedom of expression has always been limited, but there is hope for change.

Social media within China has expanded rapidly, Sina Weibo — 60 million active daily users, 600 million registered users (Sep 2013) — and WeChat — 300 million registered users, of which 100 million are international (Aug 2013) — are two of the most popular. This allows a democratic spread of information that has never previously been available to citizen journalists or local people.

A media project by the University of Hong Kong showed the importance of Weibo in relation to the 2012 protest in Shifang against potential environmental damage by a proposed copper plant. Traditional media largely declined to report on the protests themselves, but made reference to ‘an incident’ and the rising stock price of a tear gas company, whose product was used on protestors. In contrast, there were around 5.25 million posts on Weibo containing the term ‘Shifang’ between 1-4 July with 400,000 containing images and 10,000 containing video. A similar incident occurred in Chengdu, Sichuan province, when factory workers went on strike to demand higher wages. State media ignored the protests while social media spread the news that tear gas was being used, along with images of the protest. Eventually officials stepped down and workers received a raise. Physical protests can be complemented by online activity, but it is not without difficulties.

In addition to the notorious firewall, the government can censor specific words to try and control the narrative of any given incident, by pushing their own agenda and restricting citizens’ freedom of expression. However, many online users use images, and memes in particular can portray a serious topic in a light-hearted manner, further increasing the spread of information.

An OECD report in 2013 evaluated government trust in various countries, China ranked very well with 66% compared to an OECD country average of 40%. However, this disguises some of the ill-feeling towards local government officials, who are usually held accountable by the people. This could change though, as economic policy, typically the role of central government, leads to growing inequality. New leadership within the government is attempting to maintain and improve government trust, by introducing ‘Mao-esque’ techniques in an attempt to bring everyone together under one nation.

It is clear that censorship is one way of trying to achieve this, as those who openly promote citizens’ rights, inclusive democracy and transparency are regularly arrested, including Xu Zhiyong. Additionally, new training materials for journalists and editors suggest a government eager to maintain control, as they expect that the media “must be loyal to the party, adhere to the party’s leadership and make the principle of loyalty to the party the principle of journalistic profession.”

Recently, a planned protest to honour a strike over censorship last year was pre-emptively halted, when police warned or detained several people thought to be involved. A well-known campaigner for freedom of expression, Wu Wei, said that protests such as this were not accepted by the government, as they did not fit “within their social stability framework.”

The government is so concerned over social instability that Tiananmen Square is heavily monitored by uniformed and plain-clothed police. The ability to suppress dissent as quickly as possible is necessary in a popular tourist destination, to portray the image of a peaceful China to both international and domestic visitors. The digital censorship employed the government is reflected in physical terms by the large security presence in one of China’s most well-known but contentious landmarks.

The Chinese government is keen to have control over the nation’s information, and fear that freedom of expression and information could pose a threat to their power. Social media offers a critical viewpoint that is lacking from state-controlled media. However, even social media has not been able to completely detach itself from the Chinese government’s censorship.

Nonetheless, the increasing use of social media and rapid spread of information is putting pressure on the government that it has never felt before while the digital revolution is gaining more and more momentum. Democratic consciousness is rising in China and with the state pursuing an oppressive agenda, cultural change from the bottom-up, rather than institutionalised change from the top-down, is necessary to pursue these principles.

This article was posted on 15 Jan 2014 at

Egyptians to vote on new constitution amidst boycotts and apathy

An alleged supporter of ousted President Mohamed Morsi clashes with Egyptian security forces in front of Cairo University, Egypt 12th January 2014 (Image: Nameer Galal/Demotix)

An alleged supporter of ousted President Mohamed Morsi clashes with Egyptian security forces in front of Cairo University, Egypt 12th January 2014 (Image: Nameer Galal/Demotix)

Egyptians head to polling stations on Tuesday to vote on a revised constitution heralded by Egypt’s military-backed government as a” first step in the country’s democratic transition” and billed as a blueprint for the “new Egypt.”

The amended document has also been hailed by analysts as one that “enshrines personal and political rights in stronger language than in previous constitutions.” Rights advocates however, have expressed fears that the enormous powers and privileges the ‘new’ charter grants the military could undermine those rights, rendering them meaningless .

The public is being reassured that the revised charter is “a vast improvement to the 2012 Muslim Brotherhood constitution” that was scrapped when the Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests in July. In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times last week, Amr Moussa, a former Foreign Minister under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and the Head of the 50-member committee that amended the 2012 Constitution, said that the document –in its new form– “meets the needs and aspirations of all Egyptians” unlike the previous charter which he said, “had been rushed through by a single dominating political faction and answered only to its priorities”.

Ads in the local media and on billboards across the country promote a ‘yes’ vote on the charter, portraying its ratification as a ‘patriotic’ act. Public service messages broadcast on radio and TV stations tell Egyptians that even if they disagree with some of its provisions, the charter is “not permanent—Egypt is.” A ‘yes” vote will “complete the unfinished revolution Egyptians began on June 30,” intones the broadcaster in reference to the day millions took to the streets demanding the downfall of the Islamist regime.

The new charter grants Egyptians greater freedom of expression and belief and ensures equality between men and women. The provision on women’s rights says the state must take necessary measures to guarantee women have proper representation in legislative councils, hold senior public and administrative posts, and are appointed to judicial institutions. It obligates the state to provide protection to women against any form of violence. Meanwhile, articles that gave the previous constitution an “Islamist flair” have either been removed or replaced by others that limit the scope of Islamic law or Shariah. The charter also reaffirms the country’s commitment to its obligations under all previously signed international treaties and agreements including human rights covenants. It also empowers lawmakers to remove the president with a two-thirds majority, obliges the president to declare his financial assets and bans political parties founded on religion, sect or region. All of the above signal victory for Egypt’s liberals and rights advocates who had been vocal in their concerns about flaws in the previous constitution including provisions on religious freedoms and other liberties and rights of women and minorities.

But skeptics caution it may be too early to rejoice.

While some analysts hail a provision banning the prosecution of journalists for ‘publication offences’ as one that will “reinforce press freedom,” a widening government crackdown on critical voices in recent weeks has dashed hopes for greater freedom of expression. Secular revolutionary activists, bloggers and journalists have been targeted along with thousands of Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers, the majority of whom have been imprisoned on trumped up political charges. Four prominent activists (including iconic symbols of the 2011 Revolution Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher) languish behind bars for “taking part in unauthorized protests.” Meanwhile, three journalists working for the Al Jazeera English service remain in custody pending investigations on charges of ‘spreading lies and belonging to a terrorist cell.”

Another provision banning the closure of media outlets for what they broadcast or publish would have been plausible had it come before all channels linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were shut down in the wake of the military takeover of the country in July.

Critics meanwhile, cynically dismiss the provision giving citizens the right to freedom of assembly and demonstrations. They argue that a controversial new law criminalizing protests without prior permission from the authorities nullifies the provision.

And while the revised charter says freedom of belief is “absolute’–whereas the previous charter said it was “protected’– the freedom to practice religion and to establish places of worship is restricted to believers in the three “divine faiths’: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This leaves the country’s Baha’is –who have long suffered discrimination –without protection or rights and may subject them to further persecution. Shia Muslims too face harassment in Egypt, according to the US State Department’s religious freedom 2012 report. Persistent hate speech culminated in the lynching of four Shias by a mob of ultraconservative Salafis in the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo in June Earlier this month, a group of Canadian Shia pilgrims were barred entry into the country and were turned back by security officials.

But the biggest disappointment for secular activists and pro-democracy groups has been the retention of disputed provisions giving the military special privileges and allowing the continuation of military trials for civilians. Article 204 says that “civilians can be tried by military judges for attacks on armed forces, military installations, and military personnel.” Critics fear the provision could be applied to protesters, journalists and dissidents. For the next two presidential terms, the armed forces will also have the right to name the defense minister — an arrangement that positions the military as the main power broker, giving it autonomy above any civilian oversight. Moreover, the charter fails to ensure transparency for the armed forces’ budget allowing it to remain beyond civilian scrutiny.

“Failure of the charter to curb the military’s privileges paves the way for a bigger role for the army in becoming the main power broker,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Movement which played a key role in the 2011 mass uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite its shortcomings, the charter is widely expected to be endorsed in the upcoming referendum. The majority of non-Islamists — a term often used to refer to Egypt’s leftists, liberals and Christians — are likely to approve the new charter simply because they yearn for a return to the stability and security they once enjoyed under authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. An economic recession and rising unemployment have taken their toll on weary Egyptians whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the work stoppages and ongoing street protests. The economy had been on the brink of collapse before Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states offered Egypt a multi-billion dollar rescue package to shore it up.

Analysts say the “yes” vote will not be an endorsement of the charter per se but rather, a nod of approval for the return of the military to power. They say the constitution will pass as an endorsement of Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah El Sissi, the country’s de facto ruler, who on Saturday confirmed he would run in the country’s next presidential elections “if the army gives me a mandate and if the people of Egypt ask me to do so”. General Sissi is idolized by millions of Egyptians who see him as the “saviour of the Revolution” despite the repressive measures used by the military to silence dissent since Morsi’s ouster.

Meanwhile, supporters of the ousted Islamist president have vowed to boycott what they call the “military” vote and are urging others to do likewise. Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, a prominent Qatari-based Muslim Brotherhood cleric — who faces trial in absentia after the interim government branded him a ‘terrorist’ — has issued a religious edict or “fatwa” prohibiting Egyptians from voting in the referendum.

Some political groups have also declared their intention to boycott the vote while others have announced their outright rejection of the charter. The Strong Egypt Party, established in 2012 by former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fottouh has said it opposes the constitution on grounds that “it fails to promote social justice and gives too much power to the President.” Four of the party’s members were arrested last week in Cairo for hanging up posters promoting a “no” vote. The April Six Movement — one of two main groups that organized and planned the mass protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow — has also announced it would stay away from the ballot box, citing “the violent crackdown on Islamist protesters” as a reason. Other revolutionary groups like the Third Square — a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and moderate Islamists opposing both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — have also said they would refrain from voting.

The enthusiasm and vigour that characterized the polls held after Mubarak’s overthrow have been replaced by disengagement and the mood of apathy that prevailed during the autocratic era of Hosni Mubarak. When asked if they will vote in the referendum, many ordinary Egyptians will answer, “What constitution? We want food for our children.” Many of them say they will not stand in line and wait for hours as they did in previous polls held during the last three years.

“I voted for Morsi in the last presidential election,” Mohamed Abdalla, a bearded taxi driver said. “What good did that do? Where is my vote now?”

This article was posted on 13 Jan 2014 at