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Singapore's TraceTogether contact-tracing app. Photo: Catherine Lai/AFP via Getty Images

Governments around the world have seized on the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to expand digital surveillance and harvest more data on their citizens, according to a report out Wednesday from Freedom House, a democracy and human rights research group.

Why it matters: Privacy advocates have warned since early in the pandemic that the tech behind efforts to conduct contact tracing and enforce quarantines and other public safety protocols could be abused and made permanent, particularly in authoritarian countries like China.

What's happening, according to the report:

Dozens of countries have rolled out government-backed contact-tracing apps without effective laws to protect people from overly expansive data collection.

  • China, Russia, India, Singapore, Ecuador and Bahrain were among the countries that Freedom House found implemented apps that either send reams of data unchecked to government servers or make invasive data and health documentation demands.

Governments in at least 28 countries censored websites and social media posts to suppress information like unfavorable health statistics and corruption allegations.

  • Many have also imprisoned those who speak out online against government mishandling of the pandemic, and some have at times imposed total internet blackouts on their citizens.

By the numbers: As documented in a release summing up the findings:

Authorities censored reporting on the virus in 28 countries and arrested online critics in 45 countries.
In at least 20 countries, the pandemic was cited as a justification to impose vague or overly broad restrictions on speech. Residents of at least 13 countries experienced internet shutdowns...
In at least 30 countries, governments are invoking the pandemic to engage in mass surveillance in direct partnership with telecommunications providers and other companies.
— Freedom House

Of note: China was found to have the world's worst conditions for internet freedom for the sixth consecutive year, but the U.S. was not far behind — in 7th place, with internet freedom worsening for the fourth year running, Freedom House found.

  • Digital surveillance around the Black Lives Matter movement as well as disinformation and threats to social media companies pushed by President Trump contributed to the nation's poor showing.
  • Iceland boasts the greatest internet freedom, the report found.

What they're saying: "History has shown that technologies and laws adopted during a crisis tend to stick around," Adrian Shahbaz, Freedom House's director for technology and democracy and a coauthor of the report, said in a statement. "As with 9/11, we will look back on COVID-19 as a moment when governments gained new, intrusive powers to control their populations."

Go deeper

China sanctions top Trump alumni one day after Uyghur genocide determination

Photo: Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

China's Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday it would sanction 28 "anti-China" U.S. politicians, including a slew of top officials from the outgoing Trump administration such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton and former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Between the lines, via Axios China expert Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian: Chinese government officials have traditionally decried the use of unilateral sanctions by Western countries, even though China regularly blocks foreign companies and individuals from its markets for perceived political slights.

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CDC panel recommends Pfizer boosters for high-risk individuals, people 65 and up

Photo: Marco Bello/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A key panel at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus booster shots for people 65 years old and older, as well as those at high risk of severe COVID-19.

Why it matters: The approval is the near-final step in making the booster shots available to tens of millions of Americans, and comes a day after the FDA approved Pfizer boosters for the two groups. CDC director Rochelle Walensky is expected to accept the recommendation.

DHS temporarily suspends use of horse patrol in Del Rio

U.S. Border Patrol agents watch as Haitian immigrant families cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into Del Rio, Texas on Sept. 23, 2021. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security on Thursday temporarily suspended the use of horse patrol in Del Rio, Texas a DHS spokesperson confirmed.

Why it matters: The suspension comes after images showing border patrol agents whipping at and charging their horses at migrants surfaced earlier in the week, prompting widespread criticism of the Biden administration's handling of the crisis at the border.