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25 March 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 8:26pm

The rise of the bio-surveillance state

A grim choice faces 21st-century societies: panopticons or pandemics?

By Jeremy Cliffe

Mitigation is the new suppression. Where weeks ago many Western governments deemed it enough to isolate those with Covid-19, now they are closing down societies and producing scenes that few in the BC (Before Coronavirus) era imagined would ever be seen outside of films. Factories and offices are shuttered, stadiums and cinemas gather dust, trains and buses run empty or not at all. The streets of the world’s major cities now exist in a permanent dawn-state, silent but for the occasional car, delivery van, solitary pedestrian or jogger. The police break up groups in parks and stop people to demand a reason why they have left home.

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on 23 March of a lockdown, even Britain – once the trailblazer for a more laissez-faire “mitigation” path – has joined the ranks of countries imposing harsh suppression measures. This is probably the only way: at the time of writing the rates of contagion in Italy and Austria, among the first European countries to introduce lockdowns, are finally slowing. Such measures have been integral in those east Asian states – China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan – that have somewhat contained the spread. 

But now what? Releasing the lockdowns too soon risks triggering a second wave, the likes of which killed more in the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 than died in the initial outbreak, as people harbouring the virus spill back into public places and start mingling again. Even in east Asia, the slight loosening of restrictions is sending infections back up. Hong Kong’s institutions began reopening in mid-March after a seemingly successful lockdown; the numbers of infections initially stayed low but then doubled from 157 to 313, prompting the city to reinstate its work-from-home ordinance on 23 March. A second option is simply to maintain draconian lockdowns until a scalable coronavirus vaccine is developed. But that will become harder as the restrictions take their toll on mental health (think depression and “deaths of despair”), society (domestic abuse in locked-down households) and the economy (British GDP may fall by 30 per cent in the second quarter of this year). The scarring effects of 12 to 24 months of lockdown do not bear thinking about. 

That leaves a third, final option: bio-surveillance. The only way to release the restrictions in the medium term without risking a lethal second wave is for governments to ensure that those who have or may have the virus remain isolated. To do that they must monitor and condition the behaviour of the entire population, in individual and mass cases, at an intensity never before seen in the democratic world.

So countries are faced with what one might call the “coronavirus trilemma”. They can pick two of three things but cannot have them all: limit deaths, gradually lift lockdowns, or uphold cherished civil liberties. Not all countries are facing up to this reality – the US remains a notable laggard – but most will have to eventually. Those countries that have recognised the choices before them are picking the first two options at the cost of the third, bio-surveillance. It is a choice that has most clearly been made in east Asia. But it is coming to much of the rest of the world too – and will transform the role and reach of the state. 

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“We are finders of needles in haystacks,” Ori Shaashua recently told the Times of Israel. The vice president at Neura, a digital intelligence firm, explained that an average mobile phone now has fully 14 sensors monitoring not just its GPS location but motion, acceleration and light levels, making it possible to analyse an individual’s “micro-environment”. He was speaking days after Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu had introduced controversial emergency regulations enabling the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, to access private phones and harness the data to tackle the pandemic. The country’s top court has since subjected this to parliamentary oversight.

In its least intrusive form, bio-surveillance involves using phone data – and other tools such as CCTV – to monitor how populations as a whole are behaving. In Lombardy, the centre of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, authorities tapped aggregated data to see how many people were moving more than 500 metres in a day. In Britain, operators O2 and EE are both talking to the government about sharing anonymised data; Google, Facebook and Apple have had similar conversations with the American government.

Yet as Shaashua’s comment also hints, bio-surveillance can be much more targeted. As coronavirus tests become cheaper and more widespread, governments are learning more about who is infected. They can then use phone data, CCTV footage, temperature checkpoints, airline and railway bookings, credit card information, e-commerce records, social media use and in some places facial recognition and even drones to monitor the spread of the disease case-by-case. In countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea ordinary people can track the movements of fellow citizens with the virus and receive text alerts if they come near. As life slowly returns to Chinese cities citizens must frequently scan personal QR codes as they move around to show they are not defying their personalised, colour-coded restrictions. The Chinese artificial intelligence firm Megvii says it is even creating a system combining “body detection, face detection and dual [temperature] sensing via infrared cameras and visible light” to identify those prone to infection.

Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies. 

The logic of any panopticon is not just to monitor but to influence the behaviour of the monitored. And that is the second part of the bio-surveillance shift. Once authorities have gleaned who has the virus, whom these people might have infected and how the population at large might be at risk, they can act on that information. The bio-surveillance state is not merely intrusive; it is also coercive. 

Britain’s proposed coronavirus bill gives the government the power to order port and airport closures and to cancel elections and other mass events. In Taiwan those whose phones suggest they are breaking their quarantine receive near-immediate police visits. Israel’s emergency measures permit the use of “reasonable force” to break up gatherings. France requires those leaving their homes to carry an “attestation” stating a valid reason. In Poland an app summons the quarantined to submit geo-tagged selfies at random times of the day. Still not convinced that quasi-Chinese scenes could play out in Western cities? Belgian police recently flew a drone over a Brussels park in order to hector strollers to return home. Authoritarian they may seem, but such measures are all debatably justifiable by the republican notion of a “social contract” whereby the individual submits reasonable freedoms to the state in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights. “The nation will support its children,” proclaimed Emmanuel Macron on 16 March. Judging by rising support for incumbent leaders in countries such as France and Italy, voters seem for now to approve of this paternalism. 


However, bio-surveillance can also be used to withdraw freedoms under the cover of crisis management. On 20 March Viktor Orbán’s government submitted a “state of danger” bill to the Hungarian parliament permitting it to rule by decree and criminalise publications for agitating or alarming the public. Recent weeks have also seen Iran disrupt the Farsi edition of Wikipedia and Singapore order Facebook to block a dissident page accused of spreading “fake news”. Here, too, China is the yardstick: its partial, colour-coded relaxation of restrictions is based on opaque criteria and, reports the New York Times: “also appears to share information with the police, setting a template for new forms of automated social control that could persist long after the epidemic subsides.”

Even in liberal polities with strong, pluralist institutions, it is conceivable that bio-surveillance will outlive the coronavirus trilemma. That is what the “surveillance creep” of recent years suggests. Governments that have introduced emergency powers in crises, such as the 9/11 attacks, have often proved reluctant to drop them, just as firms such as Facebook and Google that have secured vast surveillance power have developed sticky fingers. So do not be surprised if the enhanced bio-surveillance of the next months is hard to reverse. 

The 21st century is still young. Coronavirus will probably not be its last global pandemic. And catastrophic climate change will ensure that it certainly is not the last global crisis requiring governments to assume emergency powers. As the demand for bio-surveillance grows, so will the supply of it, as new technologies hoover up ever more precise insights about citizens’ lives for capture by firms and states.

What to do about this looming techno-dystopia? As the novelist William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” It is the distribution of bio-surveillance power that should now be the primary concern of the friends of democracy and civil liberties.

I have argued before for a “data social democracy” in which digital information accrues not to all-powerful governments, nor to overmighty private firms, but to ordinary people under a pluralist system of redistribution. Legislatures must impose sunset clauses on emergency powers. Independent institutions need to monitor concentrations of data power. The default has to be that citizens own their data and decide who else does. Applying these principles over the turbulent coming period and the century beyond will not be easy. But it is the only way. 

This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor