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Intrusive, omnipresent surveillance growing during COVID-19 pandemic, UN expert warns

29 October 2020

New York (29 October 2020) – Widespread use of contact tracing technology to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has led to almost incessant and omnipresent surveillance in some parts of the world, a UN expert on privacy told the General Assembly today.

“This is a very disturbing trend; all-pervasive surveillance is no panacea for COVID-19,” Joseph Cannataci, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, said as he delivered his annual report, which examines the privacy impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While public health emergencies have always provided a legitimate basis for the processing of data, and while contact tracing can be classified as a necessary measure to contain a pandemic, I urgently remind States that any responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” he said.

Cannataci said he was concerned about reports of personal and health data being used to exert control over citizens, possibly to little public health effect. He called upon States and companies to recognise the importance of privacy engineering in technological strategies.

“Engineering for privacy alongside public health aims is technically possible and socially necessary – especially if citizens are to adopt and maintain the use of apps such as contact tracing features,” he said.

There is already guidance available to States to facilitate the lawful, necessary and proportionate use of health and other data to fight the spread of the virus, he said. He praised those Member States and companies that have introduced technology that recognises and works with citizens’ concerns for privacy.

He said the way to measure whether States’ responses to the pandemic were proportional and necessary was a comparative analysis of measures taken and health outcomes achieved by countries around the world.

“The critical question to ask,” he said, “is: ‘could the same public health results have been obtained by less privacy intrusive tactics?’”


Mr. Joseph Cannataci (Malta) was appointed as the first Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy by the Human Rights Council in July 2015, and his mandate was renewed in 2018 until July 2021. He is an academic who has had a pioneering role in the development of data protection, privacy law and technology law. A UK Chartered Information Technology Professional & Fellow of the British Computer Society, he also continues to act as Expert Consultant to a number of international organisations.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organisation and serve in their individual capacity. 

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For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Renato de Souza (+41 22 928 9855 / [email protected]), Jeremy Laurence (+ 41 22 917 7578 / [email protected]) and Kitty McKinsey ([email protected])

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