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23 March 2020

How the fight against coronavirus paves the way for technological authoritarianism

Measures employed in crisis can prove difficult to remove.

By Laurie Clarke

The tracking of millions of citizens’ mobile phone data; widespread facial recognition; the threat of six-month prison sentences for breaking curfew. In normal times, such measures would be the hallmarks of a repressive authoritarian regime. But they are already being introduced in democracies to slow the spread of coronavirus.

BT Group, which owns of the UK’s biggest mobile operator, EE, is reportedly in talks with the government about using the location data of its more than 30 million customers to monitor whether coronavirus limitation measures are working. Israel and Austria are using the same technology, and the US is reportedly seeking to do so. South Korea has already implemented such a system, with the added step of making the data publicly available. In Taiwan, an “electronic fence” alerts the police if quarantined people leave the house with their phone, turn it off or fail to answer regular calls.

This week, parliament will vote on an emergency Coronavirus Bill which will represent the greatest reduction of freedoms in citizens’ lives since the emergency powers granted during the Second World War. If passed, the new laws will allow police to detain and forcibly test anyone they believe could be carrying the virus, as well as prohibiting public events and gatherings without protections for strikes and industrial action. These powers are set to last for two years. In Italy and Spain, those breaking quarantine face fines and prison sentences of up to a year.

In a time of pandemic, there is a widespread sense that these measures are necessary and commensurate with the potential scale of the devastation that Covid-19 could cause. At the same time, however, the Coronavirus Bill comes at a time when many democracies are engaged in increasingly intrusive surveillance practices, and when the economy of surveillance capitalism makes this a commercial as well as a political trend. As governments plan to extend their oversight of citizens’ lives, it is important to ask what guarantee we have that these measures are temporary.

In the UK, for example, police forces have begun using facial recognition technology to capture biometric data from people without their knowledge or consent in situations – such as peaceful political demonstrations – where such data capture is controversial.

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But mobile data may be even more revealing. Dipayan Ghosh, Pozen Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, says mobile data is“typically collected out of necessity by telecommunications firms”, but that it has “unique features that make it the first first point of access for governments”. For example, he explains, “location can be used to infer an individual’s likes and dislikes, beliefs and preferences and behaviours and routines”, alongside their whereabouts.

South Koreans were jarringly alerted to this when publicly available location data was used to accurately identify them, exposing aspects of their lives – including, in one case, what appeared to be an extramarital affair – that they had thought were private.

Ian Bruff, lecturer in European politics at Manchester University, warns that laws set to expire after their stipulated “sunset clause” can be redeployed for other uses. “Government proposals to ban public gatherings, for instance, which make sense in the context of a pandemic, could easily, once on the statue books, be mobilised for a number of other purposes,” he explains.

Surveillance is a legitimate way to counter a pandemic. But liberal democratic countries have been quick to couch their responses to the crisis in terms of blame and punishment, rather than public health; Matt Hancock described members of the public as “very selfish” for congregating in parks and on beaches over the weekend rather than acknowledging a failure of clarity on social distancing measures. Willem de Lint, professor of criminal justice at Flinders University, Australia, says this is a concern because “medicine is wrapped in a different kind of ethics… [to] military or security agencies”.

The warlike rhetoric being used to justify the extreme measure necessary to slow the spread of the pandemic is, says de Lint, “instructive to citizens… it does have the potential of having a lasting effect with respect to how people review either the need or the necessity of these intrusive surveillance tactics”.  

One recent example of a law that has gone much further than the crisis it was designed to address is the US Patriot Act. Deployed as a counter-terrorism initiative after 9/11, it lay the groundwork for a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. And “secondary use”, as it is called by data professionals, is a long-established practice. The machinery of surveillance the US developed during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against peaceful protesters during the Vietnam War.

“I don’t know many examples where intelligence agencies that have gained capacities at one point, have given them up,” says de Lint.

Lawrence Cappello, assistant professor at the University of Alabama, and author of None of Your Damn Business: A History of Privacy in the United States, agrees that “the tricky part will be justifying roll-backs once the pandemic is over… one thing the history of surveillance certainly teaches us is that systems like this, while put in place for admirable purposes, are often later turned against citizens.”

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