Tracing COVID-19, Tracking Mobility

Although COVID-19 vaccination programmes have begun in the US and Britain, fight to beat the virus isn’t over yet. Considering that the spread of COVID-19 has been linked to trans-border mobility, employing new technologies to beat the virus can infringe refugees’ and the global south populations’ human rights. Intrinsically, EU has widely used new technologies within and beyond its borders with the aims to ‘stem the flow’ of migration[1], and to tackle irregular migration at their ‘roots’[2]. 2020 introduced COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated trans-border mobility to, from and within the EU for all people, while some remain more vulnerable. Considering the novel technologies introduced in the member states and calls for further cooperation and data sharing, the state of emergency ought not to pave way for technology that can compromise human rights.

States of emergency are known to open windows of opportunity for legislative changes that perhaps would not pass in times of normalcy.[3] The public and even decision-makers’ concern is used to introduce measures that might have been seen as radical or biased at other times. Such policy is passed with compelling arguments while the public is looking elsewhere. Currently, as the world is concerned with COVID-19, less headspace is left to consider data protection and surveillance.

The Finnish Prime Minister’s article in calls for unified EU measures to beat the virus from spreading.[4] Her article and initiative have been praised by the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, enforcing shared action as the way to go. [5] Before COVID-19, EU healthcare sharing policy has been minimal despite nearly 70 years of pan-European cooperation[6]. Following GDPR, sharing sensitive data touches upon policy on two levels; citizen and institutional.[7] Patients consent to have their data shared while institutions need to be able to collect, store and share the data with methods that are up to shared standards. Analysing member states’ health care systems, most state-owned and managed systems have been built gradually over time and often lack inbuilt security systems.[8] As such, it will be a long process to have the systems equipped with up-to-date security measures.

Although set in another context, the UN has raised alarms for ‘Covi-Pass’, a health passport initiative that could hamper freedom of movement, particularly among refugees in west Africa where the system was set to be tested.[9] Moreover, it is intrinsically immoral to use countries with a large number of refugees, people on the move and other vulnerable people as testing grounds for an initiative, particularly when the data is gathered by global northern actors among populations with little methods of oversight and accountability.[10] The measures are arguably biosurveillance, that entails combining health details to people’s movements and communication.[11] Is storing and sharing such sensitive data disproportionate, can it be trusted to be stored properly, to what extent is it anonymised, how long will it be kept and who has access to the data?

These fears are nothing new as the EU’s conduct in employing discriminatory technologies in its migration management has been questioned before. The EU has been previously critiqued by the Human Rights Watch for providing technical and material equipment to the Libyan border authorities among others.[12] This has been done as a measure to ‘free’ the European shores from the large numbers of migrants, evading responsibility of their rescue and rather pushing back their entry by ‘processing’ migrants in third countries.[13] As such, the EU simultaneously circumvents itself from the conditions the refugees seeking protection will be kept and providing them with the opportunity of seeking protection as guaranteed by international law.[14] More recently, Frontex has shifted from boats and helicopters patrolling over the Mediterranean Sea, to drones controlled thousands of kilometres away.[15] EU’s naval missions by its Southern borders were not primarily search-and-rescue missions but were obliged under the international law to assist vessels in distress. As such, the switch to drones allows monitoring while keeping a distance from rescue missions.

In light of contested use of technologies in the EU’s migration ‘management’, people on the move are likely to be disproportionally targeted.[16] With migrants crossing borders to reach the European Fortress, they will be faced with AI thermal cameras, iris- and fingerprint scans and even lie detectors that member state citizens rarely if not ever encounter.[17] Regrettably, there exists an imbalance of power when vulnerable communities are involved, whereby people feel pressured to conform to tests without knowing possible outcomes of data collection by powerful actors.[18] Exemplifying, the World Food Programme required iris scans in exchange for food ratio deliveries, i.e. a coercive practice disguised within arguments of efficiency.[19] Systems with decision making or flagging capability raise concerns of information sharing due to issues in informed consent.[20] Recognising that the global climate is increasingly more hostile to people on the move[21], technological tools should not be used unless the systems’ dignity can be guaranteed.

People’s bodies embody their travel history more and more, where particular travel patterns, ethnicity or gender can make one more ‘trusted’ – creating an unequal staring point.[22] This could also happen with COVID-19 tracking where people visiting certain countries could be held back. At the same time, this would benefit the authorities to track and trace the possible spread of the virus, while the right to be forgotten needs to be guaranteed and the data is only used for appropriate uses. Moreover, the recognised bias in data collection from people from certain places and with certain backgrounds, unnecessary enmities need to be avoided. Borders become easier for some to cross, where their importance fades. Thereby, bodies carry the borders and keep collecting data that might never disappear or end up in the wrong hands.

Technologies are known to outpace the legal frameworks, where the speed of both are increased particularly in times of crisis. [23] The argument behind sharing health-data in the EU is to regenerate the European economy. Is economy valued over civil liberties? The pandemic has already closed access to and from refugee camps in Greece[24] and Italy closed its harbours for refugee ships.[25] Response to a pandemic is inherently political. Distinctly deciding to make people on the move more detectible and trackable might justify increased use of surveillance. All in all, technologies do not address the root causes of displacement, forced migration and economic inequality, all of which aggravate pandemics.[26]

Written by Charlotta Lahnalahti



[1] ECFR/165

[2] Eva Magdalena Stambøl, ‘EU Initiatives along the “Cocaine Routes” to Europe: Fighting Drug Trafficking and Terrorism by Proxy?’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 27, no. 2 (3 March 2016): 303,










[12] 2019 Hras briefing note

[13] 2019 Hras briefing note

[14] 2019 Hras briefing note








[22] Luis Amoore 2006





Picture: Council of Europe (2020, April 28).  COVID-19 tracing apps: side effects on personal data protection should be avoided. Retrieved from