The Swelling Surveillance State

Robert Brooks Contributor
The Swelling Surveillance State
Read Time: approx. 1:12

Cover Photo: Public Domain.

The Swelling Surveillance State: “For believers in limited government and open markets, COVID-19 poses a problem,” The Economist writes. “The state must act decisively. But history suggests that after crises the state does not give up all the ground it has taken. Today that has implications not just for the economy, but also for the surveillance of individuals.”

On One Hand: In China, government-installed CCTV cameras point at the apartment door of those under a 14-day quarantine to ensure they don’t leave. Drones tell people to wear their masks. Digital barcodes on mobile apps highlight the health status of individuals. Hong Kong uses apps on phones that show where you are in order to enforce quarantines. Singapore, lauded for its effective containment of the virus without widespread lockdowns, has used public cameras to trace the interaction patterns of the infected, and even introduced a crowd-sourced app for voluntary contact tracing. The surveillance—along with a host of other measures—is allowing China, Hong Kong, and Singapore to slowly return to normal.

On the Other Hand: According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit digital privacy advocacy group, collection of certain data like phone location, hasn’t been proven to be effective in tracking the spread of the virus. The organization says that GPS on smartphones is only accurate to a 16-foot radius, yet the CDC said the virus can spread between people less than six feet apart.

Flag This: When Britain’s government tried to hang back to minimize state interference, it was accused of doing too little, too late. Then, when people called for a heavier hand from the government, the vast increase in state power has taken place with almost no time for debate. If China, Hong Kong, and Singapore state surveillance models do help curb the spread of the disease, and countries like the US decide to follow suit, sunset clauses are needed. Take the USA Patriot Act which was signed into law after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, CNBC writes. “The legislation gives the federal government broad surveillance powers to aid their counterterrorism efforts. But the law, which was initially due to expire in 2005, was renewed and earlier this month got another short-term renewal until later this year.” Final Thoughts from The Economist: Governments and citizens alike “must remember that a pandemic government is not fit for everyday life.”