Covid-19 Is Accelerating the Surveillance State

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The first global pandemic of the digital age has accelerated the international adoption of surveillance and public security technologies, normalising new forms of widespread, overt state surveillance.

These technologies have been layered on top of already pervasive forms of privatised data surveillance through smartphones and the ‘internet of things’ (IoT). The pandemic has also fuelled the normalisation of surveillance in previously private contexts.

The risk of this new era of surveillance is that it has the potential to permanently shift power from citizens to the state and, in doing so, entrench global trends towards a more illiberal world.

The far-reaching consequences of the pandemic have seen public health reframed as a safety and national security issue globally. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but in many countries the securitisation of public health has generated sudden momentum to cross privacy lines until recently thought unacceptable in democracies.

These include the use of tools that integrate public health and private telecommunications databases and governments’ use of personal location data from smartphones to peremptorily trace whole-of-population interactions or to enforce voluntary quarantine compliance.

Smartphone applications have been used to combat the spread of Covid-19, with varying success, in at least 98 countries around the world. For example, apps to record users’ Bluetooth interactions for contact tracing have been used in Singapore and Australia.

South Korea and Hong Kong have favoured apps that use location data in personally identifiable forms, while the EU and New South Wales have used aggregated anonymised data.

In China, a health code add-on to a popular payment app based on undisclosed, automated assessments of the Covid-19 risk the user might pose quickly became a quasi-passport to public life for hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens.

More broadly, e-health applications are explicitly viewed as a global growth market in a post-pandemic world for state-backed Chinese firms.

The pandemic has driven advances in facial-recognition technology, a particularly problematic and intrusive form of surveillance that enables rapid connection of an individual’s physical presence with deep online data profiles. For example, by March 2020 the large Chinese biometric surveillance company Hanwang claimed its technology could recognise people in masks with 95% accuracy, after Chinese hospitals began requesting the capability in January.

Facial-recognition technologies integrated with thermal-imaging cameras purporting to detect people with fevers have been marketed by at least 10 companies to police forces and governments around the world since the start of the pandemic.

Fever-screening systems are reportedly being trialled at airports in Australia, the UK and India, using deep learning algorithms to quickly detect body temperatures in crowds of up to 2,000 people per hour.

Governments seeking greater social and political control have an opportunity to use Covid-19 as cloud cover to make capital investments in surveillance technologies, including those that enable, store and process mass collections of data on people’s location, activity (both physical and digital) and biometrics (including DNA and genomics).

The data will be sourced from IoT sensors that are in use across a range of platforms, including surveillance cameras and medical devices—as well as from mobile applications, social media and other personal internet use.

The aggregation of this data, particularly when coupled with advances in machine learning, will lead to more highly accurate predictive and sentiment analysis, which is likely to be used far beyond public health applications.

Non-democratic partnerships on strategic and emerging technologies—for example, between China and Russia—are likely to deepen, especially as US and EU sanctions against Chinese technology companies steer them towards alternative partnerships (like Huawei and Russia).

And we should expect a global push from powerful private and state entities to normalise the use of spyware technologies in people’s homes to monitor their everyday activities, from tracking of work-from-home effectiveness to remote oversight of university exams.

As evidence continues to mount that some data surveillance applications have been effective in slowing the spread of the virus in some countries, it’s vital to ensure that public health surveillance tools—rushed into use for an extraordinary crisis with privacy trade-offs—don’t become business as usual.

The changes wrought by Covid-19 risk increasing complacency among policymakers about using controversial surveillance technologies.

But tools implemented in the emergency context of the pandemic should not automatically cross over from public health purposes to policing, national security or political applications, as reportedly happened in Minnesota where authorities used contact tracing applications to track Black Lives Matter protesters.

Arguments that ever more intrusive forms of surveillance are necessary or inevitable even in democracies serve a range of powerful agendas with fundamentally anti-democratic effects.

The proliferation of these technologies risks entrenching dangerous power imbalances all the way up from the private, domestic sphere through the relationship between national governments and their citizens, to international divisions between authoritarian and democratic states.

Surveillance and public security technologies, combined with digital propaganda and disinformation techniques, hand more effective tools to governments to monitor and manipulate whole populations and further entrench the state’s capacity to silence dissent.

At stake are the health of democracies and the character of global governance and international relations more broadly, with the risk of the technology tilting the playing field towards authoritarianism.

There’s another, more hopeful, possibility, shown in the response of countries such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, that the galvanising crisis of the pandemic might work to restore public trust, enhance public debate about and awareness of surveillance technologies, and bed down democratic processes for the handling of citizens’ data. But that optimistic future is by no means assured.

The EU, a traditional leader in this arena, recently took the first steps to force transparency in the sale and export of surveillance technologies by its member states. Companies selling technology with potential military use or human rights implications will be required to get a government licence to do so. Governments must publish the details of the licences.

Such an approach a decade ago would, for example, have exposed UK defence giant BAE’s export to Middle Eastern states of cyber-surveillance tools that were used by repressive regimes against dissidents during the Arab Spring in 2011.

Though likely to be of limited impact and only applying to exports, the EU regulation at least reflects a coalescing democratic approach that mandates a baseline of transparency to assess the risks posed by this technology.

In an accelerated surveillance era, populations of countries that have government accountability processes and a free and robust media and civil society will be in a relatively stronger position to negotiate.

As new intrusive technologies are introduced, democratic publics can demand more information, investigate abuses, publicly argue for a different approach, engage local politicians or stage protests.

But in authoritarian countries, the technology itself will play a role in effectively preventing the use of those mechanisms of dissent. And in weak democracies the increased use of these technologies could further undermine fragile freedoms.

Australia’s comparative success to date in averting the worst-case scenario of the virus and the government’s increasingly proactive approach to critical technologies, such as the banning of high-risk vendors from the nation’s 5G network, gives it standing on the world stage on this issue.

While not perfect, the cooperative model that the government used to manage Covid-19 involved the government working with, and being held publicly accountable by, public health experts and civil society groups. This good-practice example provides a successful alternative to authoritarian models that prioritise surveillance and censorship over transparency and accountability.

With a particular focus on the Indo-Pacific region, the Australian government should seek a global leadership role in promoting policies, standards and norms for the responsible use of surveillance and public security technologies, while also highlighting alternative models.

These efforts should focus on open dialogue, transparency and ethical use within a gender and human rights framework. For example, these technologies should never be used to target ethnic or minority groups as they are in Xinjiang.

Global discourse and decision-making in this realm are dominated by the US, Europe and China. But there is enormous opportunity for new partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.

But governments don’t hold all of the cards, especially when it comes to technology. Minilateralism and track 1.5 dialogues that bring tech companies and civil society together with governments, and that focus on raising broader regional awareness about data privacy issues, ethics and trust, surveillance and emerging technologies, are a necessary norm-building complement to government action.

A track 1.5 dialogue involving Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Australia, for example, could help kickstart regional discussion on these issues.

Finally, the Australian government should introduce Magnitsky-like legislation that enables the sanctioning of individuals and entities involved in human rights violations.

Particular effort should be directed towards ensuring that the new legislation now being workshopped in Australia captures individuals and organisations selling surveillance technology to states that will employ it in human rights violations, at home or overseas.

Any proposed legislation needs flexibility in its crafting—similar to the new EU regulation’s catch-all provision—to cover cyber-surveillance technologies that may not exist today but will be coming online in the near future.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute source|articles

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