By Mariam Khan
Something that George Orwell didn’t quite anticipate in his fictitious novel, 1984, was the progression of a dystopian surveillance state—amidst a global pandemic. The essence of his book focuses on the watchful eye of the government as it evolved into an authoritarian regime ripe with privacy concerns and human rights violations. Today, as the world faces one of the largest public health crises of the century, countries veer closer to becoming ominous super-surveillance states. Experts warn that the sharp rise in disease surveillance starts a dangerous precedent for the future, making the discussion of privacy concerns more applicable than ever.
In March 2020, as China continued waging its long battle against the coronavirus, they inputted an effective, but controversial contact tracing app required for citizens in more than 200 cities. Coined as the Alipay Health Code, the system granted users codes that spontaneously changed color depending on location and virus exposure. Though the concept sounds phenomenal in keeping the virus at bay, it presents a cause for concern, as the app automatically sent personal data to law enforcement—and this begs the question: what are the implications of police having easy access to citizens’ location data and private information? The mass collection of data by the police may carry unforeseen consequences, especially given that officials can choose bits and pieces of information from one’s data storage site, and use it at random times to incriminate dissenters.
As researcher Maya Wang told The Times, China has a history of using specific events as means of justification for the introduction of surveillance tools, yet usage persists well afterward. Citing the 2008 Olympics, she says that new monitoring tools are consistently introduced for a purpose, but they never leave. “The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be one of those landmarks in the history of the spread of mass surveillance in China,” she said. Wang says that the newly introduced data-sharing and location-grabbing technology that was originally created by the government for the purpose of tracking the coronavirus will be here to stay. In fact, the algorithmic techniques that were used to predict the likelihood of infection are similar to the ones currently being used on the Uyghurs, China’s Muslim ethnic minority. Technology provides scores for individuals that tell officials of their political pliancy and aid in their decision of who should be rounded up into an internment camp.
It’s not just China that has inputted algorithmic contact tracing technology; in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu issued an emergency order and bypassed the standard process of approval to allow the government to use technology to monitor citizen’s cell phones and track those suspected to have the coronavirus. In addressing privacy concerns that arose from the addition of the tracking app, Israel swiftly responded by inputting an oversight committee to balance the necessary public safety with data privacy. Still, the fact that the Prime Minister gracefully advanced surveillance on the Israeli people in a matter of a few days shows how easy it is to use the pandemic as a scapegoat for tightened control.
Reports as of March 2020 show that the 65 contact tracing apps that were in use did not specify how long user data could be stored. Additionally, 49 percent of these apps lacked privacy policies, and others had privacy policies that were completely misleading. For instance, one Canadian contact tracing app claimed that it did not utilize GPS or location tracking, yet when scrutinized further, it subconsciously initiated location permissions for users. What’s more troubling is that half of the apps explicitly state that they will share data with law enforcement agencies, again displaying how companies and governments alike are trying to take advantage of this public health vulnerability.
These apps have brought about much public response from dissidents (at least those who can dissent), as well as those genuinely concerned about the future of democracy when it comes to surveillance states. Ever since Edward Snowden’s incident and before, the issue of surveillance has moved more and more into the global spotlight, but author and activist Arundhati Roy put it best when she told The Guardian that “Pre-corona, if we were sleepwalking into the surveillance state, now we are panic-running into a super-surveillance state.”
Despite the privacy violations, it must be remarked that, around the world, different governments’ use of surveillance technology aimed at containing the virus has been immensely successful. South Korea, which was faced with widespread outbreaks very early on in the pandemic, has observed that information collection has worked to contain the spread of the deadly virus. Contact tracers can see the full train of a person’s movement through the collection of several forms of sensitive data, and this is useful in administering state-mandated quarantines.
Aside from its obvious societal health benefits, the deployment of surveillance technology poses dangerous consequences for the future of democracy. Researchers claim that citizens’ privacy is essential for the prevention of democratic backsliding, because it ensures that states have limitations. When governments know everything about their citizens, this allows them to extend state control beyond moral premises. According to Justice Felix Frankfurter in Wolf v. Colorado, the “security of one’s privacy against intrusion by the police – which is at the core of the Fourth Amendment – is basic to a free society.” Essentially, not only does privacy makes sure that democracy remains authentic, but it also allows for the progression of society, where individuals can think and advocate for themselves. With one-third of the population already living in declining democracies as of 2018, it is necessary to consider the long-term implications of the coronavirus pandemic on politics.
While the world edges closer to the circumstances depicted in 1984, there’s still a long way to go. Constituents and their governments must strive to establish proper surveillance boundaries. Ensuring that both security and privacy can coexist is vital, because as Edward Snowden said, “Privacy is what allows us to determine who we are, and who we want to be.”