Author: Pranshu Sharma
Days after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, US Congressman Rahm Emanuel laid bare a famous quote: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Funnily enough, at that time, it was grossly misconstrued as something having a negative connotation. The congressman called upon the people’s resourcefulness and budgetary acumen amidst the 2008 financial crisis. But as we lay awake thinking about the first thing we’re going to do, or the next tourist destination we are going to crash, this aphorism is taking a morbid, twisted meaning as we see governments, all over the globe, fight another crisis, this one having a much wider implication.
For many of us, this pandemic has made us run into our deepest imaginable fear as a collective species- sheer helplessness. In these extreme times, it is only natural that most of us turn towards anything that gives us a slight veneer of reliability, towards the leaders of our respective countries, to steer us away from this impending disaster. We are more than ready to act like the gullible fool, pretending that everything going on in the background is being executed cleanly and to perfection, rather than confront the fact that they might not have the best interest of the common folk at heart. All around the globe, we are witnessing the dwindling rights of the individual for the so called common good, privacy being the most severely hit.
We have had the opportunity to take a lesson from the past; the Soviet’s KGB and Eastern Germany’s Stasi shows us what a mass surveillance state would look like, but we are evidently turning a blind eye to it. This pandemic is an important watershed moment in the history of surveillance. We are witnessing the legitimization and normalization of mass surveillance tools. The pandemic has brought forth intrusive technology, that would’ve been impossible to fathom mere months ago. There are apps which can tell whether people have been in the vicinity of a carrier of the virus, electronic bracelets connected to a smartphone app and GPS tracking of civilians. But China has taken it to a new level with its opaque colour-code health system, informing civilians that they can go outside with heavy punishments for the dissenters.
As we have already witnessed in China, Hungary and Israel, radical executive decisions regarding our privacy are becoming a norm throughout the world. As more and more executive decisions become the standard, the government decides that it is in our best interest to declare an emergency and proposes to use surveillance tools till the situation sorts itself out with no explicit sunset clause. But these temporary measures, that empowers the governing of people, tend to overstay their welcome. There will always be a calamity in the not-so-distant future that reasons for the continuation of these measures. It might seem that our only two choices are privacy and health. This is a false dichotomy, as we can choose our health without installing a totalitarian government. Along with stepping on our civil liberties, it also encompasses discriminatory impact against vulnerable and minority groups, as has been the case for millions of Uighurs under the CCP regime. The introduction of biometric surveillance has opened yet another can of worms. Facial recognition is one such example. The concept of this technology seems fairly innocuous on the face of it, but its implementation has wide implications that would contend with the Orwellian dystopia, threatening privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association. It gives the government the power to know you better than yourself.
This article does not argue against the use of technology to slow the spread of coronavirus, but rather the need of the close monitoring of these tools by the parliament and media alike. The data collected must only be used to fight the pandemic and deleted in a timely manner. A well-informed public, capable of making sagacious decisions on their own would always be better equipped to deal with a calamity than an ignorant one, who need to be policed through force and intimidation. It is far more difficult to force millions of citizens to wash their hands and practice social distancing, than imparting knowledge, stressing upon the importance of performing these obligations on their own volition. In order to inculcate a well-informed public, we need to build their trust in the media and authoritative figures devoted to science.
As important as technology is, the trust should be both ways. The health authorities can collect our data as long as the implementation of that data is transparent to the general public. The trust in our leaders is very much pertinent to the strength of our response.