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The East plays a COVID shell game with biometric surveillance

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Again, governments around the world are trivializing personal privacy as they build increasingly intrusive biometric surveillance networks.

Officials in Hong Kong, Singapore and Russia are taking exactly the steps that some human rights activists warned would accompany indiscriminate face and fingerprint scans.

Worse, some officials appear to be using COVID containment as cover.

The implications are grim for citizens of those territories, but efforts to build more-limited, ethical and transparent systems in democratic nations could be doomed by association.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, the fight against the pandemic has been used to justify mission creep.

A columnist in the South China Morning Post has bemoaned the breadth of data Hong Kong residents are required to surrender — including two photos of their face, one mouth open another mouth closed — if they want the government’s iAm Smart biometric app for accessing information.

China, which insists that the world butt out of its authoritarian encroachment on the tiny state’s once-strong democratic tradition, also has fostered the deployment of two other digital ID apps that lack trust.

One is Leave Home Safe, which claims to tell users if they have eaten at an eatery that is also a COVID hot spot.

The other is a “verification scanner” that tells the owners of indoor venues where people gather socially of the bearer is vaccinated.

In this case, according to writer Peter Kammerer, it is not clear if the app says there is a low risk of COVID in allowing someone in or if the app is identifying this person as being comparatively safe.

A lengthy Twitter thread by Singaporean journalist and activist Kirsten Han (she manages the WeTheCitizens social justice newsletter) raises similar concerns.

Han points out that Singapore is celebrating roughly eight months of COVID remission and yet, two temporary apps very much like the pair deployed in Hong Kong are gradually becoming permanent and compulsory.

She claims COVID-tracing tools are now also being used by police in crime investigations.

Fever scanners focused on faces are being set up around the nation and Han writes that she is not clear if facial recognition is part of their capabilities.

Acknowledging the need for COVID surveillance, she says the government — which has always and openly favored order and commerce over individual rights — is overbuilding and over-collecting without sufficient transparency.

Then there is Russia, which, like China, never let a personal datum go unexamined (or at least stored for possible future use).

President Vladimir Putin continues to laud Moscow’s sprawling facial recognition system as an effective COVID tool as he unleashes the system on dissidents the way his dictatorial forefathers used secret police to maintain power.

A Bloomberg article reports on perhaps 100 people detained during a recent political protest in Moscow.

For developed economies with legitimate missions for biometric surveillance, it increasingly looks like their plans will fail — or worse, distrust of all government will spread uncontrollably — unless trust can be established.

The most paranoid fantasy appears to be a reality in one corner of the world or another.

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