In uncertain times, surveillance is being offered as a necessary evil to fight the bigger enemy. But, as Matt Bartlett argues, we shouldn’t be too quick to embrace our new saviour. 

Covid-19 is a terrifying thing. The virus is incredibly contagious, lethal to the vulnerable, and we do not have a cure. It has killed more than 100,000 people and the media is replete with models that suggest millions more may die. This dark and depressing picture has cultivated a pervasive atmosphere of fear — does that person coughing have the coronavirus? Does my flatmate, who went for a walk this morning? Do I?

In these circumstances, it’s understandable why so many have welcomed the emergence of mass surveillance as a weapon against the virus. Politicians and technologists alike have touted the potential of contact tracing in particular, which involves figuring out who an infected person has been in contact with, and trying to prevent them from infecting others. In this way, surveillance is offered as a salve to our uncertainty, a necessary evil to fight the bigger enemy.

We should not necessarily be so quick to embrace our new saviour. Yes, contact tracing is a potent way to contain the virus and flatten the curve. But contact tracing does not necessarily require the unprecedented level of surveillance that many states have jumped to embrace. We should be conscious of what we stand to lose as the Overton window surges in the direction of mass surveillance, particularly in light of evidence that emergency measures have a nasty habit of becoming permanent fixtures of our social life.

Inviting the wolves to guard the chicken coop

The term ‘mass surveillance’ tends to conjure images of Orwell’s Big Brother; the symbol for a totalitarian state where all citizens are constantly monitored via ‘telescreens’ in order to cauterise anyone disobeying the autocratic rules. Those who display subversive tendencies are quickly arrested and imprisoned. There is no privacy in this imaginary world of constant surveillance.

A far cry from any country in the real world not named North Korea, of course. No government has deployed ‘Thought Police’ to punish individuality or critical thinking just yet (even if the thought must be tempting to autocrats like Putin and Xi Jinping). But while the worst extremes of Orwell’s horror story have yet to emerge in the 21st century, there are now tendrils of similarity between Big Brother’s surveillance and our own.

We should be clear-eyed about the trade-offs involved when our countries become surveillance states. It is not normal for your government to be able to know where you are at any given moment.

Take one of the biggest news stories in the last month: the announcement of a partnership between technology powerhouses Apple and Google, for the purposes of developing a contact tracing platform for Covid-19. Essentially, users will ‘opt in’ by downloading an app, turning their phone into a small Bluetooth beacon that constantly broadcasts the user’s Covid-19 status — positive, not positive — to nearby phones and public officials. Apple and Google assure us that this data will be carefully encrypted (and why would we not trust Google with such things?).

So far, so good, right? The world’s smartphones mobilised into battle as scouts in the war against Covid-19. An emergency alliance equal to the emergency in public health. And yet, already, there are signs that Big Tech’s intervention may well outlast the pandemic it was designed for. Apple and Google are building the tracing functionality into the operating systems of phones themselves. As the New York Times notes, this means Apple and Google can ensure the tracing system runs 24 hours a day without user input.

It is worth noting at this point that the ubiquitous ‘telescreens’ in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, too, could not be turned off.

How every country becomes a surveillance state

The danger we face is a frightened acquiescence of public will — the acceptance of whatever surveillance measures are deemed necessary to combat Covid-19. With this mandate of public fear, governments the world over are free to ratchet up their surveillance apparatus, and over time this state of exception becomes our new normal.

Frankly, this prospect should terrify us, given the breadth of surveillance taking place around the world. A small selection include:

– Ecuador, where local reporting suggests that the government is tracking the location of cellphones to enforce the country’s 9pm curfew

– Hong Kong, where many residents are made to wear a wristband to alert authorities if they leave their place of quarantine

– China, making use of facial recognition cameras, drones and a government app that logs citizens’ details and those of their close contacts

– A range of other countries including India, Germany, Israel, Pakistan and Russia with nationwide programs to track the location of smartphones without their owners’ consent

The radical steps to contain the pandemic will have radical consequences for us all when the battle finally ceases.

Even in New Zealand, the Privacy Commissioner has suggested it is legal under the Privacy Act for the Government to “commandeer” information from telecommunications companies.

It is important to note that many of these surveillance initiatives have backing from public health experts. The challenges posed by Covid-19 are extraordinary, and it follows that extraordinary solutions might be required. China’s draconian lockdown of Wuhan might be regarded in time as a public health success story, saving countless lives.

However, we should be clear-eyed about the trade-offs involved when our countries become surveillance states. It is not normal for your government to be able to know where you are at any given moment. A basic notion of privacy dies at the point where that level of surveillance does become normal. And while the world’s new surveillance apparatus is branded as temporary for the purposes of fighting the virus, a healthy dose of skepticism is advisable.

“It’s mission creep,” Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian about Beijing’s new approach to surveillance. “With the coronavirus outbreak the idea of risk scoring and restrictions on movement quickly became reality. Over time we see more and more intrusive use of technology and less ability [for] people to push back.”

In the face of Covid-19 and the dark spectre of uncertainty, many may quite willingly give up their privacy for a perceived defence against the virus. It is this human logic that drives the advance of mass surveillance and provides a shield against its critics.

However, the radical steps to contain the pandemic will have radical consequences for us all when the battle finally ceases.

The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness, and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.

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