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How the pandemic is being abused to chip away at our digital freedom

Health isn’t the only thing to worry about amid the COVID-19 pandemic. A new Freedom House report shows that global internet freedom has deteriorated for the 10th consecutive year. Many governments have also taken advantage of the global pandemic to increase surveillance, data collection, and censorship. Are these necessary evils, or is the health crisis being exploited to tighten governments’ grips on their citizens?

How the pandemic is being abused to chip away at our digital freedom

Limiting free speech

Preventing the spread of false information during a crisis is important, but limiting the freedom of expression to stifle fake news is a slippery slope. Some governments used the pandemic as a pretense to block news sites, restrict freedom of speech, and even arrest citizens for allegedly spreading misinformation about the crisis.

Of the 65 countries assessed by Freedom House, 20 of them expanded or introduced new laws restricting online speech. China — which topped the list for being the worst country for internet freedom — imposed restrictive censorship right at the start of the outbreak. Millions of posts that contained at least one of 2,000 keywords related to the virus were censored.

Zimbabwe passed one of the most extreme policies concerning online speech. Citizens could face up to 20 years in prison if they were found spreading false information about the virus. Currently, at least three internet users are facing this penalty for supposedly spreading incorrect information about lockdowns in the country on WhatsApp.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg — a staggering 45 countries have arrested or detained users for coronavirus-related online speech. In Türkiye, more than 400 people, including reporters, were arrested in just a month.

Internet shutdowns

One of the harshest forms of digital censorship was cutting citizens off from online communication entirely. At least 13 countries experienced internet shutdowns during the pandemic. India, which dropped significantly in internet freedom, remained the leader in government-led internet shutdowns.

The trend of disrupting internet connectivity seems to be expanding globally. Freedom House found that a record-breaking 22 countries of the observed 65 experienced some sort of connectivity issues last year.

Are contact tracing apps tracking the virus or you?

We’ve shared our concerns about the risks associated with coronavirus tracing apps before. Contact tracing is an essential part of fighting the pandemic and well-developed apps could help. However, some apps seem to be more focused on tracking users rather than the spread of the virus.

  • Russia’s contact tracing app requires users to send actual photos of themselves quarantining and has already erroneously fined people for allegedly breaking quarantine.
  • To track COVID-19 cases in South Korea, the government used data like credit card transactions, location data and CCTV footage to track people’s movements.
  • In China, on top of the contact tracing app, the government has installed surveillance cameras outside the apartments of people in quarantine to ensure they don’t leave their homes.
  • In Singapore, contact tracing is disproportionately affecting the migrant population. Unlike the rest of Singaporeans, migrants are specifically required to use the country’s contact tracing app, which records their health status.

Aside from the fact that this type of surveillance is invasive and authoritarian governments can abuse the collected data, even democratic countries can put their citizens at risk. Hastily developed government tracing app initiatives have been riddled with data leaks and cybersecurity vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cybercriminals.

Cybercrime is on the rise

According to the FBI, cybercrime has skyrocketed 400% during the global healthcare crisis. The FBI’s Cyber Division reports about 4,000 new crimes everyday. The new wave of crime combined with increasingly intrusive collection of data has resulted in a record-breaking 27 billion records exposed in the first half of 2020.

Given that internet freedom and security is declining, taking any precautions to secure your sensitive information is key. Take a look at how to protect yourself from criminals when working remotely and check out these tips on how to recognize and avoid potential phishing scams.

NordVPN helps you secure all data traffic on your devices with robust encryption. Protect yourself from prying eyes with a VPN.

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