DemocracyWatch: COVID-19 ushers in a new era of surveillance apps

Around the world, governments are using the crisis to roll back democracy and human rights – and to monitor citizens through new tracker apps.

29 April 2020, 12.00am

In 2009, PayPal founder and major Facebook investor Peter Thiel wrote a notorious essay. He argued that allowing women to vote had made democracy untenable and that someone should therefore invent the technology to stop it.

These days, Thiel, a Trump supporter, is founder-chairman of Palantir. Named after a magic all-seeing stone in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, it’s a data-analytics firm set up with help from the US Department of Defense. Last week, Palantir got the US government contract to run a new system for tracking the spread of COVID-19.

It’s not just the US that is boosting surveillance in the pandemic. In tiny Liechtenstein, the government has launched biometric tracker bracelets that automatically collect key medical information. The statelet plans for all citizens to wear them by autumn, while Germany, Turkey and France are also among the 23 countries that have looked at high-tech surveillance measures in response to the crisis. 

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Meanwhile, the danger of permanent stigmatisation of migrants, minorities and refugees is growing around the world. They are labeled as carriers and locked away in several countries; stateless people are being forced to face the disease alone.

Around the world, the coronavirus crisis is leading to an unprecedented roll-back of democracy, civil liberties and human rights. openDemocracy and our partners SourceMaterial are monitoring these changes and sharing them with you weekly through our DemocracyWatch newsletter. Please sign up here.

You can read this week’s bulletin below and send us any news for our next update at [email protected].

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Middle East and North Africa

Egypt The government postponed for the sixth time a hearing on the continued detention of a human rights researcher charged with ‘subversive propaganda’, citing the pandemic for the delay.

Iraq A Kurdish journalist was arrested after criticising the regional government’s response to the pandemic in social media posts, the National Union of Journalists Iraq said.

Iran Authorities may be executing inmates, including minors, at a faster pace after some protested that crowded and unsanitary prisons increase the risk of coronavirus, the United Nations’ human rights chief warned.

Israel Energix, a wind farm developer, took advantage of the virus lockdown in the occupied Golan Heights to advance projects that residents had rejected, a rights group claimed.

United Arab Emirates Foreign workers in quarantine said authorities were not providing food or treatment and had locked their rooms from the outside. India, which has 3.2 million citizens in the Emirates, rejected the government’s demand to repatriate them. 

Qatar Authorities informed hundreds of migrant workers that they were going for coronavirus tests but instead took them to detention centres and began deporting them.

Algeria Parliament passed a draft law criminalising "fake news" harmful to "public order and state security". Dozens of people have been summoned for questioning and a journalist leading anti-government demonstrations was briefly detained, while activists and political prisoners were excluded from jail amnesties, rights groups said.


South Africa More than 70,000 extra troops will be deployed to help enforce the lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced. Residents of the Khayelitsha township on the outskirts of Cape Town protested against lockdown measures, saying they were going hungry. 

Nigeria Police arrested a journalist at the state government house where he had arrived to cover a press conference on the coronavirus response, accusing him of violating a new law against ‘“false and damaging” publications about the pandemic.

Uganda Security forces arrested writer Kakwenza Rukirabashaija and television news anchor Samson Kasumba over coronavirus posts on social media.

Malawi Police clashed with prison guards on strike over lack of personal protective equipment.

Cameroon Police forcibly dispersed gatherings of Muslims praying at mosques at the start of the holy month of Ramadan for violating social distancing rules.

Burundi Private institutions taking measures against the virus have been threatened with sanctions as campaigning for the 20 May election began amid continued intimidation and harassment, Amnesty said.

Somalia Protest erupted in Mogadishu after police killed two people while enforcing a coronavirus curfew. 


Hungary Viktor Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian government benefited disproportionately from European Union’s crisis handouts, with Hungary receiving far more money than states like Italy and Spain that the virus hit harder, said the European Stability Initiative, a think tank. Amid a crackdown on protest, the government sought to abolish trans people’s legal right to change their gender. 

European Union An EU report about Chinese and Russian disinformation on the coronavirus was reportedly watered down after pressure from Chinese diplomats.

Poland Mayors of several towns in Poland refused to transfer data about their constituents to the national post office, which is organising the 10 May general election via postal vote, because of privacy concerns.

Turkey Last-minute additions to a prisoner amnesty bill could see some rendition and torture of detainees backed by legislation as the government tightened a crackdown on freedom of expression. The government released a tracking app that will allow people to access advice on symptoms and access to public services but will also let security forces to track their movements.

Belgium Intelligence services warned that extreme right-wing groups and Russia were spreading disinformation to undermine the government and its medical advisers.;

Bulgaria Residents of a quarantined Roma settlement clashed with police over government restrictions described by Amnesty as “alienating and discriminatory”.

Greece Quarantined migrants at a camp on Lesbos protested against plans to transfer refugees to the Greek mainland, where the virus is more widespread.

France MPs are voting this week on a controversial tracing app viewed by health experts as an essential tool for escaping lockdown but criticised by privacy campaigners as a new form of confinement that risks “normalising the electronic tag”. Paris police faced criticism after a young black woman was Tasered and arrested during a shopping trip. 

Liechtenstein The microstate became the first European country to launch real-time coronavirus tracking, using biometric bracelets that send data such as skin temperature, breathing rate and pulse for analysis in neighbouring Switzerland. Authorities insist they will ask users permission to pass on data.

Germany Abortions are among elective procedures postponed or cancelled in German hospitals. The government abandoned attempts to design a coronavirus tracking app following widespread concerns about privacy and security. Instead, it is adopting a Swiss model supported by Google and Apple.

United Kingdom There is not yet enough evidence to support the use of digital contact tracing as an effective technology to support the pandemic response, the Ada Lovelace Institute, a think tank, said in a report. 

Bosnia Migrants should be deported because they pose a potential security threat and an economic burden amid the pandemic, the country's security minister said.


Malaysia Two fishing trawlers carrying 500 Rohingya refugees were left stranded in the Bay of Bengal after being rejected by Malaysia.

Bangladesh A leaked government plan to allow elite hospitals in Dhaka to offer exclusive treatment to celebrities and the rich sparked anger. The government locked down camps for Rohingya refugees and continued an internet and mobile phone blackout in the camps.

India Police in Tamil Nadu state arrested the chief executive of the SimpliCity news website after it alleged government corruption in food distribution related to the pandemic. 

India The national government asked states to track down Rohingya refugees, claiming they are spreading the virus.

Nepal The government banned emigrant workers from returning home, leaving thousands stranded in Gulf states; 

Japan Criminal gangs took advantage of the crisis to sell medical equipment and win popularity with handouts.

Australia The government’s coronavirus contact tracing app, COVIDsafe, became available for download amid concerns about privacy and effectiveness.


United States Large companies exploited government assistance measures intended to protect small businesses, according to a New York Times analysis. Palantir, a company founded by Donald Trump ally Peter Thiel, won a contract to provide a core of a federal tracking platform described by the government as “the single source for testing data”. Dataminr, another data-analytics company, began trawling social media to predict outbreak patterns in the US and UK by tracking users and their contacts. 

Brazil As nightly pot-banging protests against his handling of the crisis continued, President Jair Bolsonaro sacked his chief of police, who went on to accuse Bolsonaro of requesting access to investigation reports rumoured to implicate his family. 

Mexico A wave of attacks on healthcare workers followed misleading media reports about the pandemic.

Colombia Thousands of Venezuelans turned to criminal gangs to smuggle them home across the closed border after losing their livelihoods in Colombia because of the lockdown.

Panama, Peru, Colombia Measures allowing men and women to leave their houses on alternate days led to police harassment of trans people.

El Salvador Human rights activists have denounced the use of abusive measures in jails populated by violent 'mara' gang members. The president has authorised police to shoot and kill gang members caught in the streets during coronavirus lockdown.

Climate and environment

Brazil Deforestation in the Amazon accelerated to its fastest rate in years as environmental enforcement officers faced constraints from coronavirus measures. 

Lebanon A waste crisis is worsening because of the pandemic.

France Air France-KLM secured a €10 billion bailout from the French and Dutch governments with environmental conditions still to be finalised.

Good news

Turkey Migratory birds are benefitting from coronavirus measures in Turkey amid a decline in poaching, disturbances and commercial flight frequency.

Europe Pop-up cycle lanes could provide a route out of lockdown as local authorities seek ways to revive the economy without stoking new outbreaks.

Ukraine A new wave of volunteering is sweeping Ukraine in response to coronavirus.

Belgium Separated for centuries, Western Europe’s two wolf populations appear to have met in Belgium, allowing them to breed. 

Humans of COVID-19

openDemocracy has launched a new series, Humans of COVID-19, profiling the individual stories of people around the world during this crisis. Don’t miss Selam Abebe, an Ethiopian migrant worker stranded in Lebanon due to the crisis.

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