State Surveillance Technology and COVID-19 in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries have attempted to track and slow the spread of the virus through the use of contact tracing and to enforce quarantine measures through existing surveillance systems. While many governments of Central Asia already use facial recognition technology to aid in policing large cities, this technology has been adapted to track the spread of COVID-19 and enforce quarantine measures. However, concerns about individual privacy and national security arise with the use of surveillance systems, even when the technology is used to protect public health.
In mid-April, Kyrgyzstan launched the STOP COVID-19 mobile phone app, which was developed by the State Committee for IT and Communications to trace the whereabouts of individuals suspected of having, or known to have, COVID-19 and allows users to report the state of their health to authorities through the app. Because of this app, 151 individuals have been arrested for being out of their homes by May 2020, and some face fines of over $800. While the app is aimed at helping users have contact-free communication with doctors and track the locations of possible coronavirus carriers for the protection of public health, it is not known which government agency has access to the information in the app and where the information is stored. Due to the uncertainties surrounding the app’s use, privacy advocates at the Civil Initiative on Internet Policy, a nongovernmental organization in Bishkek, said that the app violated the legislation surrounding personal privacy protection and cybersecurity. In late April, a video posted on YouTube showed an unidentified man accessing the personal information of a user and reading out the individual’s name, passport details, phone number, and social security details. While it remains unknown if the unidentified man had authorized access to the app’s data or had hacked the system, the app’s security has been called into question, and officials stated that they were investigating the violation.
In Kazakhstan, the Health Ministry has required about 8,000 individuals in quarantine to use an app called SmartAstana to ensure that individuals remain in quarantine. Additionally, the Interior Ministry is using the Sergek video surveillance technology to find violators of the quarantine regime. For example, in Nur-Sultan, where 14,000 Sergek cameras are installed, the technology is used to track cars that deviate from their normal home-to-work route in order to fine the driver for violating lockdown measures.
While these apps and surveillance systems are useful for enforcing the safety of the public’s health, concerns over access to individuals’ private information and their whereabouts through mobile phone apps or smart cameras exist. Similarly, the increased use of technology puts the private information of citizens at a higher risk of hacking and abuse of information. The increasing surveillance measures taken by governments – especially during the pandemic – could continue after the virus is controlled. Better security needs to be established to maintain the privacy of citizens’ information on mobile apps. Also, more transparency about the use and function of these apps between citizens and government is necessary. Similarly, smart-camera technology is only useful in the cities that possess the surveillance systems. Other means of enforcing quarantine measures should be considered for mitigating the spread of the virus.