Governments Are Using Coronavirus to Usher in a New Era of Mass Surveillance

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Surveillance. Art courtesy of Mr. Fish.

Mass surveillance has been growing in our post-9/11 world and taking on breathtaking proportions not even George Orwell could have imagined. One of the most notable examples has been the U.S. National Security Agency’s spying on civilians as well as world leaders. But just when you thought companies and governments couldn’t possibly collect even more private data, nations across the world have been using the coronavirus pandemic to further expand their spying powers. While for years the West has hypocritically criticized China for the country’s use of technology to control citizens, it is now openly looking to the Chinese technological response to the coronavirus as a model.

President Trump’s framing of the coronavirus as the “invisible enemy” we’re “battling” recalls the omnipresent enemy in Orwell’s “1984,” and presents authoritarian and wannabe-authoritarian governments like Trump’s with the perfect excuse for expanding the surveillance state. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” host Robert Scheer speaks with the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Adam Schwartz. The civil rights lawyer, who spent two decades at the ACLU, explains why Americans should be incredibly alarmed at how the pandemic could be used to chip away at whatever is left of their civil liberties under the excuse of contact-tracing.

“You've raised some cautions about the blank check we're giving every government in the world to engage and increase surveillance, to track down people on the contact list, and so forth,” Scheer tells Schwartz, “But what I don't understand is the basic justification of keeping this all secret rather than transparent. Because we don't have an enemy, this ‘invisible enemy’ that Donald Trump talks about, that cares to translate, to read, to break codes.”

“Obviously, governments around the world are grappling with how to contain the coronavirus, and many of them are demanding new forms of surveillance,” responds the EFF staff attorney. “The governments of the world ought to be telling us what they want to do, and why and how, so that we can have a public conversation about these things rather than individual executive officers unleashing these new surveillance programs.”

As our lives move almost entirely online in light of the pandemic, we all need to be as vigilant as ever about how our data will be used without letting fear of the deadly virus overtake our cautiousness. In order to have a productive conversation surrounding the expansion of surveillance powers, Schwartz outlines questions people should be asking their governments.

“The public [needs to ask] three questions,” the civil rights lawyer explains, “Number one: has the government shown that the surveillance power they want would actually be effective?[...]If it would be effective, we ask a second question, which is: Is it simply too intrusive on our precious freedoms? [Lastly,] if a technology would possibly be helpful, and is not so far invasive of our freedoms that we oppose it per se, we want safeguards.”

Problematically, Scheer suggests, it is impossible to have these conversations without knowledge of their innerworkings, and, more importantly, if people do not protest these new invasions of privacy. While Schwartz believes that resistance against this type of overreach exists and will prevail, the “Scheer Intelligence” host points out just how much people are willing to give up in times of crisis.

“I wonder whether you're underestimating the acceptance by the general public of this kind of surveillance,” Scheer tells Schwartz, “which has suddenly become a good word---a way of being healthier---you're being surveilled---rather than an intrusive, intimidating word---you're being watched by people who maybe don't have your best interests at heart.

“To even suggest that now would be to suggest that you're kind of off-kilter and paranoid,” he goes on. “Obviously, we need as much information as we can have. And the idea that any government in the world might misuse that information is sort of put up on the shelf; that's for later.”

Given how long the U.S. government has used the powers it obtained as the country grappled with the 2001 terrorist attacks, there is ample cause for concern that whatever begins in the coronavirus period will not end once the virus is under control. It should also be particularly disconcerting, as Shwartz indicates, to activists given the extensive history the U.S. has of spying on people involved in various movements.

Listen to the full conversation between Schwartz and Scheer as the two discuss in detail the different forms surveillance is taking in countries such as Israel and China, foreshadowing what might come to pass in the U.S.



Joshua Scheer