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Covid-19 and the acceleration of state surveillance

The pandemic has suddenly made the unthinkable acceptable. Data and privacy may never be the same.

Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Berlin, 1 April 2020 (Emmanuele Contini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If the 15th-century philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today, he would surely have recognised the power of surveillance technologies that states such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and others have adopted in the fight against Covid-19. Patrol robots and drones, CCTV cameras and smartphone applications, all supporting facial recognition, location tracking, and big-data analytics for contact tracing and social control (including law enforcement). These things may be tools for protection, but they are also instruments of fear.

In the effort to persuade people to comply with counter-pandemic measures, fear of state punishment has perhaps played a greater role than fear of the loss of privacy and civil liberties. But people are also fearful of sacrificing privacy and civil liberties as a result of tech-enabled mass surveillance expanding state power.

Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.

The threat of inadequate data protection adds to these fears, even if experts claim that rapid implementation of these technologies is necessary against the smart virus that is the cause of Covid-19. In Australia and Singapore, for example, commentators have suggested that downloading national contact-tracing applications Covidsafe and TraceTogether should be made mandatory.

Civil-rights advocates contend that the use of surveillance technologies should be time-limited and cease when the pandemic is brought under control. There are also concerns that the use of surveillance technologies to fight Covid-19 resembles China’s authoritarianism and thus implicitly enhances its soft power.

Given, however, that these technologies are so new, and the virus and its socioeconomic impact are evolving and expected to linger for years, states have an opportunity to assess how to use these surveillance tools. Here are four strategic considerations:

  • Surveillance technologies are not a silver bullet. They can supplement manual contact tracing. These technologies are effective because manual contact tracing cannot keep up with how quickly the virus spreads through densely populated cities. Like many tools, these technologies are neutral. They can be used responsibly (i.e., for enhanced security) or they can be misused (for monitoring, repression, and control). Dismantling surveillance technologies after the pandemic has passed will not be so easy – it’s akin to demobilising an army after the battle, hoping that war (or a pandemic, in this case) will never recur.
  • Nothing is risk-free. Everything is about risk management. Beneath the fear of loss of privacy and civil liberties is a global decline of trust in state institutions and elites. The potential for the state to exploit its power for parochial political gains instead of protecting citizens’ interests looms in the minds of many. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrated that people cannot trust the private sector to protect their data from manipulation. There is a need to rethink the notions of trust and risk, instead of perceiving them in binary, zero-sum terms.
  • Increased use of surveillance technologies might make states less democratic and more tolerant of China’s authoritarianism. This concern is more of a geopolitical construct. An overemphasis of the dangers of China's authoritarianism can overlook how other powerful states have disregarded human rights in the use of technology. Ultimately, the decision to adopt new surveillance technologies needs to a strike a difficult balance between legitimate privacy concerns and guarding public health and the economy.
  • Covid-19 highlights challenges that will likely render multilateralism less effective in addressing global crises. Even in the face of common threats to humanity, states are more inclined to put self-interest before the collective good. The war of words between China and the US over the virus’s origins fuels geopolitical distrust and uncertainty, impairing international cooperation and global leadership. More states will be poised to pursue self-reliance to avoid being caught flat-footed in the future.

Such considerations point to a future where tech-enabled state surveillance becomes an unstoppable global trend. Covid-19 may be a turning point that causes states to make tougher choices to better prepare for both man-made and biological threats. Public health unpreparedness has already resulted in severe harm to national interests. Keeping people safe and economies functioning is fundamental for a state’s political legitimacy.

Nonetheless, states must acknowledge that concerns over privacy and civil liberties will continue to characterise the post-pandemic zeitgeist. They therefore need to demonstrate how surveillance protects citizens, not only institutions and elites. They will also have to address the socioeconomic inequalities that Covid-19 has exposed.

There will always be those who question official motives. For this, our time-travelling Machiavelli also had some advice: It is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both.

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