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Uncritically Inflating Government Surveillance Amid COVID-19 Crackdown is a Mistake

Uncritically Inflating Government Surveillance Amid COVID-19 Crackdown is a Mistake

In the global fight against the COVID-19 virus, government agencies have grown fond of using predatory surveillance tactics on the general population, according to a report from The New York Times. As everyone becomes a potential suspect in this “invisible war”, civil libertarians meanwhile have their own considerations to grapple with, being forced to ask whether their cause remains tenable in a time of worldwide panic.

In avoiding the novel clichés of mustache-twirling spymasters, the report presents an interesting case of how health officials and scientists are utilizing surveillance in good faith as a means to establish “virus transmission chains”, tracing the recent movements of potential coronavirus patients in the broader interest of flattening transmission rates. A prime example is how telecom companies were pressured into handing over mobile data without a warrant by the European Union, notorious for holding the strictest privacy regimen of all global representative bodies. 

The report extends its coverage to other countries, such as South Korea, Italy, and Israel, where governments have taken to “harnessing camera footage, smartphone location data, credit card purchase records, and cache harvests used for counterterrorism operations” under the same cause. As the coronavirus pandemic has grown to over 1.5 million cases and 90,000 deaths around the world, the argument for surveillance is centered around a “wartime” framework, whereby the norms of democratic order are temporarily suspended for the greater good of our survival. 

Even as a staunch critic of “surveillance capitalism,” the socio-economic relationship between governments, corporations, and populations under watchful eyes, it’s hard to dismiss these efforts outright from the comfort of my isolation chamber, and I’m not the only civil libertarian at this impasse. “I’m very concerned,” says Glenn Greenwald, co-founder of The Intercept. “The kind of digital surveillance that I spent a lot of years, even before Snowden, and then obviously, the two or three years during Snowden, advocating against is now something I think could be warranted principally to stave off the more brute solutions that were used in China.”

Over the last month, the Chinese Republic has taken to using a compulsory smartphone-tracking system used to quarantine people who might have been near those who tested positive for the virus, immediately sending data to Chinese law enforcement before they’re uncritically detained. This contrasts with the UK government’s voluntary surveillance health project using similar tech as a means to alert citizens of possible contamination. “We have to be very careful not to get into that impulse either where we say because your actions affect the society collectively, we have the right now to restrict it in every single way,” the Pulitzer-winning journalist continued. “We’re in this early stage where our survival instincts are guiding our thinking, and that can be really dangerous. And I’m trying myself to calibrate that.”

In this context of contingency, whereby our survival rests on temporary social controls with a potential return to normality thereafter, a case can be made for such state-of-emergency measures. Currently, this transition of powers is only a guarantee for one and a mere assumption for the other. “During times of crisis, civil liberties are most at risk because the normal balance of safety versus privacy becomes tilted toward safety,” argued Michele Gilman, a privacy lawyer for the think-tank Data & Society. “A major concern is that new surveillance technologies deployed during the coronavirus crises will become the ‘new normal’ and permanently embedded in everyday life after the crisis passes. This can result in ongoing mass surveillance of the population without adequate transparency, accountability or fairness.”

In this context of realism, civil uncertainty is perfectly legitimate. To steal a quote from Trotsky, “the end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.” As it stands, the people have their trust placed in the malleable hands of representatives, left without any mandated terms on how to proceed. Even in the harsher contexts of war, soldiers are expected to follow the rules of engagement, emphasizing the use of “minimum force”, as legislatures outline their dates for de-escalation by law, such as President Obama’s partial withdrawal from Iraq

If COVID-19 truly deserves such a wartime response — which is quite an undeniable premise at this point in time — governments must adhere to the exact same wartime principles of accountability. By this, the powers that be must be under the obligations of law, assuring oversight in writing rather than waving around a silent IOU. To reap the benefits of hawkish surveillance without enforcing the consequences of supervision is undoubtedly a violation of civil liberties, even within the extraordinary conditions of a wartime mindset. 

After all, there is a precedent for this so-called “new normal”, pushed under the premise that the September 11th attacks will repeat themselves again and again if not for our ever-watchful big brother. “Nearly two decades later,” the report continues, “law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.”

Even then, passing controversial legislation like The Patriot Act, which resulted in undue data harvests and racial/ethnic profiling of Muslims, is more accountable than executive authority since even war-hawks and racist snoops had to actually rally votes. If you want to justify the means with the end, get it in writing through passing law, essentially no different than the emergency bailouts for corporations and common people. “We need to have a framework that would allow companies and public authorities to cooperate, to enable proper response for the public good,” argued Mila Romanoff, data and governance lead for United Nations Global Pulse. “The challenge is,” she added, “how much data is enough?”

As history shows, all data is enough in the eyes of the harvester. With this, it’s important to emphasize the points of Cas Mudde, a political scientist and columnist for The Guardian. “To prevent another Patriot Act,” he writes, “each new emergency measure’ should be assessed individually on the basis of three clear questions: (1) what is its contribution to the fight against the coronavirus?; (2) what are its negative consequences for liberal democracy?; (3) when will it be abolished? If any of these three questions cannot be adequately answered, the measure should be rejected. We should not let our fear be used to drag us into yet another false war’. Because if we do, politicians will use it once again to strengthen the already far too strong repressive powers of our surveillance states.”