Will the Coronavirus Normalize Surveillance?

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

This post originally appeared in my bi-weekly newsletter, The State of Surveillance. You can sign up for that here.

For most people living in Europe and North America, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind. City shutdowns, stock market collapses, quarantines, empty sports stadiums, canceled music tours, mass panic buying, and tragic tales of suffering are fast becoming the norm. And it seems the most aggressive rollouts of social distancing may indeed work to stop the societal bleeding, but the virus and its fallout will almost certainly get much worse before it gets better.

It’s in this bleak context, one mired by despair and laced with anxiety, where people will be forced to make some tough choices. One of those revolves around whether not to use surveillance technologies to stem the tide of new COVID-19 cases.

Several weeks ago in this newsletter, I dived into the surveillance tools the Chinese government used to combat its own disaster. Amongst other things, the Chinese deployed drones equipped with facial recognition software to detect people walking without a facemask on, infrared scanners were stationed at train stations and airports to measure body heat to snuff out people with a fever, and roaming robots reminded potentially at-risk residents to stay indoors.

At the virus’s peak, the government even instructed residents to download a monitoring app that appears to have functioned as a surveillance tool, and a new law was rolled through effectively banning negative comments about the government.

If one believes the authenticity of recent data out of China, it appears those extreme measures worked. Week after week, the number of new confirmed Chinese cases shrunk, until finally this Tuesday, The New York Times reported that of the 13 new Chinese cases reported in one day, 12 of them were from travelers visiting from outside of China. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider where China was just a month ago, with hundreds of new cases emerging every day.

This week, in a poignant symbol of how far the country has come, a group of doctors in Wuhan’s last emergency hospital hastily built to treat the influx of Coronavirus patients walked out of the hospital for the last time and removed their masks.

While many in the West have questioned whether or not some of China’s most extreme limitations on personal freedom in the name of public health could feasibly translate internationally, European and American cities are already following the Chinse playbook in terms of mass social distancing and city-wide shutdowns.

While the US has yet to implement the most extreme forms of surveillance and censorship China used to combat the virus, a growing cadre of developing countries have. In Iran, where the Coronavirus has led to the deaths of over 900 people, including several government officials, a new surveillance app has been created under the guise of tracking new cases.

Millions of Iranians were notified of the app, which claims to diagnose the virus, via a push notification. Here’s what that notification said, according to VICE.

“Dear compatriots, before going to the hospital or health center, install and use this software to determine if you or your loved ones have been infected with the coronavirus,” the message said.

The app, of course, does not actually diagnose Coronvirus, but when installed it does collect the real-time geo-locations of every person who downloads it. It’s unclear exactly how that data is being used, but the app’s developer, Sarzamin Housmand, has come under fire in the past for helping create an alternative to Telegram — a secure messaging system popular amongst many Iranians — that many believe functions as a surveillance app for the government.

Similarly, this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked the world when he revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed secret data tracking system used to monitor suspected terrorists and said the government would begin using it to track Coronavirus cases.

According to reporting in the New York Times, the tool could be used to enforce lockdowns and determine whether or not an infected person had left quarantine. The surprise announcement was met with worry by some privacy advocates who warned the technology could be used to track an individual’s location in real-time or trace a potentially infected person’s metadata to see where they traveled and who they may have come in contact with. Israeli’s found (potentially through this tool) to have broken quarantine, according to The New York Times, can face up to six months in prison. If that isn’t a surveillance state, I don’t know what is.

The Israel example represents the clearest sign yet that similar surveillance practices may be making their way to Europe and the United States. In fact, some companies are banking on it.

According to Motherboard, Athena Security — a surveillance company whose past work involved firearm detection — claims to have created artificially intelligent thermal cameras that can scan people and detect fevers. Athena suggests using these cameras at the entrances of grocery stores, hospitals, and voting stations, something pulled directly from the Chinese playbook.

Here’s Athena describing the product on its website.

“Our Fever Detection COVID19 Screening System is now a part of our platform along with our gun detection system which connects directly to your current security camera system to deliver fast, accurate threat detection.

A video of the supposed fever detector also appeared on Youtube.

Elsewhere, an app being developed by the MIT Media Lab claims to track where you’ve been and notify you if you’ve interacted with an infected person. The app, called Private Kit, works by users self-reporting whether or not they’ve become infected. A sick person can share their location with health officials, who will then make the location public.

Private Kit’s developers, a ragtag team of MIT, Harvard, Facebook, and Uber engineers, make pains to stress the app’s commitment to privacy (hence the name). All data is supposedly encrypted and the app claims it does not share the data with a central authority. Those safeguards are certainly reassuring, but when looking at the app from a broader perspective, it’s more evidence of the type of privacy sacrifices gaining traction.

Maybe these are the right decisions. Privacy advocates, even some of the most dogmatic and uncompromising, almost all admit that privacy and personal autonomy must be weighed against the well being of the collective. In situations where nations, or in this case the global community, face extreme health threats, the balancing act between personal freedom and collective health shifts weight.

Self-reporting disease tracking apps like the one above are not totally new, with some flu-tracking variants dating back as far as 2011. As Will Kight reports in Wired, many of the same questions about whether or not such an app would actually be effective and concerns over mass surveillance, existed then as now. The unescapable elephant in the room of course though is Coronavirus.

Society is engaging in a forced upon experiment the likes of which we’ve never seen. Millions of people all around the world, sick or not, are being told to stay home. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters, concert venues, and every other entertainment staple that’s come to coat modern existence has all of a sudden shut off like an exhausted light bulb. How long are people willing to trudge on without these comforts? A month? Two months? More? The longer one imagines society living with this virus, the more likely it appears people may be willing to submit to once-unthinkable surveillance just so they can watch a movie or shoot some pool.

Maybe that’s the right conclusion to an uncomfortable trade-off. Maybe not. But either way, one thing seems clear: communities and countries should make those decisions together. Once a surveillance technology is allowed into daily life, it becomes infinity more difficult to retroactively expunge it. Before taking that plunge, conversations and debates over surveillance should dominate the news and friendly banter. That, unfortunately, is far from the case right now.

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Texas expat, freelance journalist. Work has been featured in New York Magazine, Motherboard and Medium. I’m on Twitter @mackdegeurin

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