COVID-19 Litigation Fund Case Studies

COVID-19 Litigation Fund Case Studies

The COVID-19 Litigation Fund supports strategic cases challenging digital rights violations committed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This page summarises the important work being carried out by COVID-19 Litigation Fund grantees.

The COVID-19 Litigation Fund was open for applications in the second half of 2020. It is not currently accepting new applications. See more information here.

The COVID-19 Litigation Fund was made possible thanks to funding from the Open Society Initiative for Europe, Luminate and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

Civil Liberties Union for Europe, working with 12 member organisations and Access Now

To help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, governments are developing and rolling out apps related to contact-tracing, symptom-tracking, exposure notification, and quarantine-enforcement. Many governments are not taking data protection and privacy seriously when developing and deploying these apps, and there is a risk of normalising the expanded use of invasive digital surveillance technologies.

The Civil Liberties Union for Europe will use a variety of litigation actions – freedom of information requests, data protection authority complaints, and litigation before domestic/regional courts – to stop the use of COVID-19 apps that do not respect people’s rights to privacy and data protection. They also want to use this litigation to help ensure that impact assessments are carried out in relation to such apps, and that there is more transparency around their development and use.

Strategic Goal

To prevent European governments from using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for normalising the expanded use of invasive digital surveillance technologies, and ensure that citizens across the EU have access to public health apps that do not amount to disproportionate surveillance and are not unlawful or unnecessarily intrusive.

Photo by Women’s Link Worldwide

Women’s Link Worldwide, in collaboration with Women on Web

In Spain, the website for Women on Web (WOW), a non-profit organisation that disseminates information on the human right to safe medical abortions, has been blocked by Spanish authorities. This coincides with an increase in barriers faced by women and girls when accessing sexual and reproductive health services because of the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Women’s Link Worldwide are supporting Women on Web to take litigation in Spain to challenge the blocking of Women on Web’s website. Additionally, they will ask the courts to recognise access to information on sexual and reproductive health services, including during the pandemic, as a key part of the right to abortion and the right to information in Spain.

Strategic Goal

To ensure that information about sexual and reproductive health services, including access to abortion, is available in Spain through public online publications. This means all women will have accessible, high quality and non-discriminatory information regarding their sexual and reproductive rights and the services available to them, including access to abortion via telemedicine. Women’s Link also want to ensure that the protection and promotion of the free flow of information online includes women’s rights.

Stock image of surveillance cameras on a purple-blue background

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Big Brother Watch

In the UK, the use of thermal scanning has expanded in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to environments such as airports, schools, workplaces and retailers. Big Brother Watch are concerned that any unlawful and unevidenced use of thermal scanners could lead to unnecessary violations of people’s right to data protection, and could contribute to further invasive surveillance that violates other rights, such as the right to education and freedom of movement.

Big Brother Watch plan to challenge the use of thermal scanning by taking a claim to the UK High Court against a data controller using thermal scanning technology. They are aiming for confirmation that data generated through thermal scanning is “personal data” under data protection law, that data protection impact assessments have to take place before thermal scanners can be used, and that thermal scanning technology must be created and implemented in line with data protection law.

Strategic Goal

To ensure a more evidence-led, rights-respecting and data protection respecting approach to surveillance during the pandemic, particularly related to thermal scanning, and to set a precedent confirming that other rights are being indirectly violated by the imposition of thermal scanning.

A group of police officers in riot gear standing on a street

Photo by ev on Unsplash

La Quadrature du Net

In March 2020, in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, France introduced an emergency law that imposed a strict lockdown on the whole country. People that did not comply with the lockdown obligations were subject to fines or even jail time. Police and law enforcement agencies started to record data on lockdown infringements in a criminal record database previously only used for driving offences. La Quadrature du Net believe this practice goes beyond the purposes of the database and violates French and EU data protection standards.

La Quadrature du Net are taking litigation before the Conseil d’État to overturn the French government’s expansion of the criminal record database to include COVID-19 lockdown infringement records. They filed their litigation statement with the Conseil d’État on 2 November 2020.

Strategic Goal

To ensure that, in France, personal data about people that break the law is only collected for limited and specific purposes and meets French and EU data protection standards.

Somebody using a laptop with data and graphs on the screen. Photo by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels

Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte (Society for Civil Rights)

As exams have been shifted online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some universities in Germany have started to use proctoring software to monitor students taking their exams. GFF believe that this software violates fundamental rights by processing a large amount of personal data, including identity, location, videos of movements, and the student’s room and desk. Due to restrictions or concerns related to the pandemic, students do not have a real and meaningful choice to opt out of being monitored.

Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte are taking litigation in Germany against one or more universities in Germany that are using this proctoring software for online exams. They aim to get a ruling that the processing of personal data through the use of automated online proctoring software is unlawful.

Strategic Goal

Universities, employers and other institutions in Germany stop using automated online proctoring software and use less intrusive, privacy-friendly alternatives, such as open book exams.

Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels

Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte (Society for Civil Rights)

In Germany, public health insurance providers will soon begin transferring the pseudonymised health data of millions of people to scientific and other institutions for research purposes. GFF believe that the security standards for the storage and transfer of this data are too weak and there is a high risk of privacy breaches. In particular, they are concerned that the pseudonymised data of people in marginalised groups, such as those suffering from rare diseases, becomes re-personalised by research institutions. This is an increasingly important issue as health data is being processed on a huge scale to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte will take litigation in Germany against one or more health insurance providers with the aim of ensuring greater security over how health data is shared with research institutions, and give insured people the possibility to object to the use of their health data.

Strategic Goal

To improve the security standards and retention periods for health data generally, and strengthen the rights of marginalised groups (such as those with rare diseases) to oppose the processing of their health data by third parties. GFF also aim to increase public awareness that health data can be used for the good of society without having to sacrifice data privacy and security standards.

Photo by Cottonbro on Pexels

Open Knowledge Foundation

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic many educational institutions in the UK have moved exams online and are turning to remote proctoring as a monitoring solution. This potentially results in a number of intrusive and discriminatory impacts, including the collection of personal data through room scanning and tracking cookies, unfair algorithms used to identify students and analyse their behaviour, and data security risks.

Open Knowledge Foundation is taking litigation against a number of institutions using remote proctoring software to prevent its use until the data rights and equality issues are resolved.

Strategic Goal

To set a precedent showing that, during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, remote proctoring and monitoring software should not be used unless it does not violate data protection and equality rights.