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COVID-19 and the rise of the Surveillance State

By Sara Chitseko:

This month, there has been increasing pressure on the government to provide information on when and how they may ease lockdown. Lift it too soon and we may face a second wave of coronavirus, which has potential to be more infectious and more deadly. Maintain a form of lockdown until a vaccine is available and risk triggering public resistance, widespread worsening mental health and even more damage to the economy. Then there is a third and final option which is looking increasingly likely: expanding mechanisms of mass surveillance.

Just last week, the government introduced a new NHS contact-tracing app. The app works by sending you an alert if you’ve been in close contact with other users of the app who’ve reported that they’re experiencing coronavirus symptoms. On face value, the app doesn't appear to be overly intrusive. But, we already know that surveillance tech does not come without threatening civil liberties. It also has the power to transform the role and reach of the state in ways that we have never seen before. In taking the necessary action to reduce the impact of coronavirus and rebuild our society, we must also ensure that we do not exchange physical isolation for the cage of a surveillance state.

We can look to countries from across the world to see how surveillance tech may be rolled out here and the potential impact it could have on our communities. In Italy, the government tapped aggregated data to see how many people were moving more than 500 meters in a day. In Argentina, people caught breaking quarantine are being forced to download an app that tracks their location. In Poland, people are required to submit geo-tagged selfies to prove that they are abiding to quarantine. Israel's approach permits "reasonable force" to break up social gatherings and in Hong Kong, anyone arriving at the airport is given a compulsory tracking bracelet that must be synced to their home location. These measures may seem far fetched for the UK, where many consider themselves as "liberal minded" and big believers in "democracy," but we already have our own examples which demonstrate otherwise.

In the UK, lack of clarity between actual coronavirus legislation and government guidance, has meant the police have found it easier to abuse their powers. It's important to recognise that the police already had sweeping powers and access to mass surveillance technologies, such as facial recognition technology and CCTV. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, police deployment of surveillance technologies have increased even more. Derbyshire Police sparked controversy by filming walkers who were complying with social distancing guidelines and posting the video on social media. Surrey and Sussex Police have been using drones that approach groups suspected of violating restrictions and issuing a message ordering them to go home. Police surveillance strategies are not just intrusive, they can also turn violent. At 4FRONT we don't just know this because of what we see in the media, but also from our member's own accounts. Increasing police surveillance undermines public trust, which makes public resistance more likely. Furthermore, we know that historically such powers. are disproportionately likely to be used against Black people and other minoritised groups.

On top of this, there has been an increasing free for all in which for-profit companies are expanding existing surveillance in the name of "public health." Apple and Google have partnered to develop a contact-tracing technology which has the potential to monitor 3 billion people - that's over a third of the world's population. In Mexico, Uber sent government authorities rider data to trace an infected tourist, also banning 240 users who had taken rides with the same driver. It seems we are on the brink of a rise in surveillance capitalism, which mustn't be accepted, just because it's been repackaged as a "health service" or "public good."

So where does all of this leave us now? As coronavirus tests become cheaper and more widespread, governments are learning more about who is infected. Government agencies can already access 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 drones. The new NHS app may not seem too intrusive, but what precedent does it set for the future? Has it been debated by parliament to ensure rights are protected? Will it remain voluntary? Which data is being collected and who gets to see it? These are all valid questions that we must be asking, to ensure the current public health crisis doesn't in turn, cause a civil liberties crisis.

We also must demand that emergency measures introduced as a result of the crisis are frequently reviewed and scrapped once the pandemic passes. Governments that have introduced emergency powers in the past, such as after 9/11, have often been reluctant to drop them. There is a very real concern that the unchartered territory we're living in could give way to a society governed by panopticon logic, where the incentive is not just to monitor, but to influence the behaviour of the monitored. There is a very real concern that we may find ourselves living in a surveillance state that is not just intrusive, but also coercive.

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