China has never been known for its efforts to protect the rights of its citizens. However, one example from the last month made it seem like a particularly serious breach of privacy, even by the standards of the communist country. According to Western publications, in an attempt to better track people quarantined because of the coronavirus, in some cases the police has gone as far as to install CCTV surveillance cameras even in their homes.
This may be one of the most apparent examples of rights abuse during the pandemic, but it is by no means the only one. In recent weeks, governments around the world seemed to be racing to come up with new ways of tracking, the Empire of the Sun undoubtedly being a leader in this unprecedented ranking. However, it is not the only one - a number of countries, including the United States and countries in Western Europe, have also resorted to such unpopular methods. The reason - their attempts to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, in combination with the advancement of technology.
Architecture for Oppression
That is how former American spy Edward Snowden described what many countries were creating at the moment with the excuse that they were fighting the spread of the coronavirus. In an interview with Vice, Snowden who has been persecuted by the US for revealing the methods of ubiquitous espionage of US intelligence services, shared that many governments use the pandemic to introduce new surveillance systems and practices for their citizens. He said he did not expect those in power to give up this newly acquired power after the end of the health crisis, and called on societies not to allow it to lead to more authoritarian governance around the world.
Snowden was adamant about another important question: could we have predicted the pandemic? "There is nothing easier to predict than a health crisis in a world where we live on top of each other in crowded and polluted cities," the former spy believed. According to him, both scientists and intelligence services expected such a development. Even today, a number of governments are using the crisis to expand their citizens' monitoring capabilities. "No matter how it is used, what is being created is an architecture for oppression," he added.
New technologies - new methods of surveillance
At the height of the health crisis, it appears that mobile device localization and traffic data collection is by far not the only form of monitoring that some countries are considering. In an article on the Financial Times, Israeli writer Ewal Noah Harari recently pointed out that technological developments, combined with the threat of the pandemic, could lead to new methods of surveillance. According to him, if we are not careful, the epidemic could mark an important turning point in the history of surveillance and move from being "above the skin" to one "under the skin". Governments would already like to know not only what we visit, but also what our body temperature, heart rate or blood pressure is. And with the new sensors on smartphones and wearable mobile devices such as bracelets and glasses, this is now achievable. The result may be a future where the government knows if we are sick, even before we know it ourselves.
Many will probably wonder what’s not to like about receiving such timely information about our health. However, Harari goes further, describing various other scenarios for using this physical data collected through the new technologies. "If you can track what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate while watching a video, you will be able to learn what makes me laugh, cry, and what makes me really angry," the writer warns. According to him, if corporations and governments start massively collecting our biometric data, they will begin to know us much better than we know ourselves. Harari is convinced that societies have to make a choice, taking all these aspects into account.
Authorities around the world don't seem to be concerned about such warnings. Including those in democratic states. Recently, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received new funding worth half a billion dollars to build a monitoring and data collection system to track the spread of the coronavirus. It is curious that the funding for the project will come from Trump's large-scale economic stimulus plan. Some US cities, such as Connecticut, are beginning to monitor their citizens with flying drones that will measure their temperature and monitor compliance with the distance requirements. In a number of countries, including Bulgaria, new legal texts have been adopted to allow the tracking of traffic data.
China is undoubtedly among the leaders in introducing such practices. There is a large-scale citizen surveillance system in place in the country, which was expanded at the height of the epidemic. A new mobile application has been introduced that collects the personal data of each user and gives him directions on where to go and where not to go. It could protect citizens from getting closer to people with coronavirus disease. At the same time, critics have already warned that such technology could easily lead to abuse of power.
The Big Question
according to some analysts is whether free democratic societies could effectively deal with a pandemic or their model have failed. In support of the second thesis is the rapid management of the crisis in countries such as China, where human rights are not a priority. Edward Snowden, however, disagrees: "I do not think that authoritarian regimes are better at dealing with the crisis than the democratic ones. It has been argued that China can do things that the US cannot. But that doesn't mean their actions are more effective. " He also added that data provided by China on the number of people infected could not be trusted.
In support of his view come also the good news from democratic countries such as Germany, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand and South Korea, in which at least at this stage the crisis seems to have been resolved and the death toll is much smaller. And recently, leaders in a number of European countries issued a joint statement against the use of coronavirus to expand the powers of the state. Worldwide examples show that democracy has enough capacity to deal with such a crisis. Preventing new attempts to monitor and violate privacy, however, is not a sprint, but a marathon, and societies, as well as the media, will have to critically evaluate each government's attempts in this direction.