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In response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the government of Ecuador has announced its plans to use satellite monitoring and georeferencing systems to track individuals as part of the disease containment measures. The announcement was made on 17 March alongside the declaration of a state of emergency, and has sparked the concern of both national and international organisations that work to defend human rights.

While emergency measures like these are adopted with the aim of slowing the spread of the virus in order to protect public health, it is crucial to ensure that any use of information and communications technologies for these purposes strictly adheres to the criteria of necessity and proportionality, in order to safeguard the exercise of human rights. This is particularly critical in the case of technologies used for the surveillance and monitoring of the population.

As emphasised in a statement issued by United Nations human rights experts on 16 March, governments must not abuse emergency measures to suppress human rights. Any restrictions adopted to respond to the virus “should be narrowly tailored and should be the least intrusive means to protect public health,” they stress.

Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable

Because of its intrinsic connection with human dignity, information on the state of health of individuals is confidential and personal, and should be subject to reinforced protection to prevent it from being used in a discriminatory manner. In Ecuador, legal protections are very clear in this regard. The country’s constitution establishes the confidentiality of personal information, including health-related data, which can only be disseminated with personal authorisation or under a court order, while a law on patients’ rights establishes the right to be treated with dignity and the confidentiality of health-related information. Ecuador’s criminal code includes provisions aimed at protecting reserved, personal and confidential information, such as articles that establish the revelation of information covered by professional secrecy and restricted information as criminal offences.

In countries that have used georeferencing to track the population’s movements during a COVID-19 outbreak, there have been reports of system errors that not only led to false positives, but have also contributed to the stigmatisation of individuals infected with the virus.

The government of Ecuador, and any other country that chooses to adopt similar strategies, must ensure that legal proceedings against individuals deemed to have violated emergency measures adhere to the principles of due process and international human rights standards. It must also offer the necessary guarantees to ensure that the implementation of surveillance and monitoring measures do not negatively impact individuals whose work is essential to protect the exercise of human rights, such as human rights defenders or digital security experts, among others. To do so, it must provide sufficient information on the scope of the measures implemented, and clearly communicate the protocols to be adopted in order to prevent third parties – both within and outside the public administration – from gaining access to the information gathered and using it for illegitimate purposes.

Read the full statement: Ecuador: Surveillance technologies implemented to confront COVID-19 must not endanger human rights