In the Old City of Jerusalem, Majd Ramlawi was serving coffee when a terrifying text message came into view.
It said in Arabic, “You have been seen as having participated in acts of aggression at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.” “We’ll hold you responsible,”
At the height of one of the most volatile recent periods in the Holy Land, Ramlawi, who was 19 then, was one of the hundreds of people who, according to civil rights attorneys, received the SMS last year.
Many people, including Ramlawi, claim they were simply residents or employees of the area and were unrelated to the violence.
He was unaware that the Shin Bet, Israel’s dreaded internal security agency, targeted Israeli citizens and residents with mass surveillance tools for COVID-19 contact tracking for unconnected reasons.
In the confusing early stages of the pandemic, millions of people worldwide believed government authorities who said they required private information for cutting-edge computer solutions that could stop the spread of the coronavirus.
In exchange, governments received personal health information, pictures that measured people’s faces, and home addresses.
The Associated Press has now discovered that authorities used these technologies and data from Beijing to Jerusalem to Hyderabad, India, and Perth, Australia, to obstruct travel for activists and regular citizens, harass marginalized communities, and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools.
In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies.
Nearly three years into the pandemic, the issue has gained new urgency as China’s extremely rigorous zero-COVID rules have sparked the fiercest and most significant public criticism of the nation’s autocratic leadership since the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
To discover how technology intended to “flatten the curve” were used for other purposes, AP writers spent more than a year speaking with sources and sifting through hundreds of documents.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, the balance between personal privacy and national security altered, and COVID-19 has given authorities an excuse to ingrain tracking technologies into the society that have persisted long after lockdowns.