Surveillance Technology Will Only Get More Intense After Covid

Surveillance Technology Will Only Get More Intense After Covid

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When an outbreak of the bubonic plague swept through Europe in the 16th century, people in London were told to stay home for a month if anyone they lived with had contracted the disease. So long as they carried with them a long white stick, known as a plague wand, one person from an infected household could venture outside to get food or other supplies. The stick served as a warning sign. It told other people to stay away.

Today, in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, the advice is the same: Stay home and avoid other people. But in the 21st century, we no longer use white sticks to identify those who may be contagious. Instead, governments and law enforcement agencies are turning to a vast armory of digital technologies in an effort to track and stop outbreaks in different parts of the world.

We have surveillance systems that can map out the movements of entire populations, thanks to the invisible signals emitted by the smartphones we carry in our pockets. We have drones that fly above city parks and blast out audio warnings to anyone not following guidelines on social distancing. We have facial recognition cameras with infrared technology that can detect whether your temperature is above normal. And we have applications that can be installed on our phones to tell us—with varying degrees of accuracy—whether we have come into close contact with an infected person.

The technology has extraordinary potential. It could help societies recover from Covid-19. But there’s a fierce debate about its use, with some fearing that governments could exploit the pandemic to usher in broad invasive powers to enable them to pry on people’s private lives. Could we be sleepwalking into some kind of surveillance dystopia?

In April, a group of more than 130 human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, published a letter cautioning against an expansion of surveillance powers amid the pandemic. “States cannot simply disregard rights such as privacy and freedom of expression in the name of tackling a public health crisis,” they wrote.

“We’re not saying technology has no part to play in a pandemic response or that surveillance can never be the right thing,” says Rasha Abdul Rahim, the deputy directory of Amnesty International’s technology division. “But increased digital surveillance needs to follow certain conditions if it’s going to happen.”

Any surveillance, Abdul Rahim says, must be proportionate, limited to what is strictly necessary. The minimum amount of private data should be collected, for purposes related only to the pandemic response. Moreover, Covid-related surveillance powers should have a sunset clause, expiring after a specific period to ensure they don’t continue indefinitely. “If history has taught us anything, in the post-9/11 era, it is that once governments put in place surveillance measures it is very difficult to then roll them back,” she says.

The concern isn’t a hypothetical one. Some governments have already exploited the coronavirus crisis to consolidate power and push through measures that could be misused to target political opponents.

In Cambodia, the government recently passed a new law granting broad powers to monitor communications, control the media, seize private property, and restrict freedom of movement. Human rights groups say the country’s authorities are using the pandemic as cover to arrest activists.

In Israel, the government authorized its spy agency to use a system designed for counterterrorism to track millions of citizens’ cellphones during the pandemic. Meanwhile, with immigration offices closed because of the crisis, Israeli authorities instructed Palestinians living in Israel to download an app to verify their residency status. The app, however, appears to have a dual purpose. According to a report in Haaretz, it allows the Israeli military to track their movements and the messages received on their phones.

In Hungary, the country’s far-right nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is now ruling by decree—parliament has been suspended, essentially disbanding democracy in the country. Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, the government pushed through new powers to monitor people who’ve been placed in quarantine. Critics say the law allows the police, without judicial authority, to spy on people’s phone and internet records.

Mihail Ekemdzhiev, a human-rights lawyer based in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second-largest city, says that under the new emergency law the police have the power to request a person’s personal data dating back six months. Telecommunications companies, he says, have no means to verify whether the request is in relation to a coronavirus patient or any other person. “The system is open to abuse,” says Ekemdzhiev. “They can use the information to make a very sensitive profile regarding our preferences, political beliefs, social habits, and even sexual interests.”

Bulgaria’s government has moved to reassure citizens. “Police access to citizens' telephone and internet data will not be uncontrolled,” Interior Minister Mladen Marinov told a television audience in March. Regardless, the situation has opened up old wounds. In 2007, the European Court of Human Rights found that Bulgaria’s surveillance laws violated privacy rights. Ekemdzhiev was a complainant in that case. Now, he says, he plans to file a new lawsuit with the European court over the Covid powers. “We’re going to fight this,” he says.

Many governments had broad digital surveillance capabilities in place prior to the pandemic. In 2013, the U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden laid bare some of them. Snowden’s disclosures revealed that the NSA had built a global spying apparatus that was vacuuming up vast amounts of private communications from the world’s phone and internet networks. In December 2013, the Washington Post reported that the agency was covertly collecting almost 5 billion records every day on the whereabouts of people’s cellphones internationally.

The NSA’s partners in the so-called Five Eyes alliance—the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—all operate their own large-scale surveillance programs, the Snowden documents showed. One British initiative, named Karma Police, was created to record the website browsing habits of “every visible user on the internet,” according to a top-secret document.

“They already have these ridiculous surveillance powers,” says Bruce Schneier, a security expert and cryptographer who lectures at Harvard's Kennedy School. “The smartphone is the most invasive surveillance device our species has ever invented. I don’t see what’s happening now [during the Covid pandemic] as making any difference.”

Nevertheless, some security experts remain worried about recent developments. “Just because bad systems already exist doesn’t mean we should build more of them,” says Kenneth Paterson, a professor at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Information Security. He’s among a group of about 170 scientists and researchers who’ve raised concerns about the British government’s effort to build a contact tracing app for smartphones, which has been designed to use Bluetooth technology to alert people when they come into contact with a person who has the coronavirus.

The British model—unlike others in Europe—will use centralized databases to store information about people’s contacts. The U.K. government says the data will be anonymized, but Paterson argues that it could be “a treasure trove” vulnerable to criminal hackers or foreign spies. “It’s only one or two steps away from being repurposed into a mass surveillance system,” he says. “And that is what keeps me awake at night.”

Even if you accept privacy risk as a price worth paying, questions remain about how effective surveillance can be as a tool in the fight against Covid-19. According to authorities in Israel, their phone tracking methods have so far helped identify more than 4,000 verified coronavirus cases in the country. But trials of similar technology elsewhere have provided little evidence of success.

“The lure of automating the painstaking process of contact tracing is apparent. But to date, no one has demonstrated that it’s possible to do so reliably despite numerous concurrent attempts,” concluded researchers at the Brookings Institution in April. “No clever technology—standing alone—is going to get us out of this unprecedented threat to health and economic stability.”

Many of the approaches governments are taking have never been tried before. We are lab rats in a technological experiment, and it may take years before we learn the results. In some countries, forms of digital surveillance will undoubtedly provide some useful insights, helping epidemiologists to better understand the spread of the virus. In others, governments will use the moment to expand the reach of invasive technology, with little benefit to the pandemic recovery. Both of these outcomes, like the virus itself, will leave a legacy felt by future generations.

For Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and a professor emerita at the Harvard Business School, one of the primary dangers is that democratic nations lurch toward authoritarian models in their efforts to contain Covid-19. “Those in power have long understood that times of crisis are opportunities for states of exception that allow all manner of ills to be rushed into normalization before anybody has even pulled up their socks,” says Zuboff. Her post-pandemic outlook, however, remains tinged with optimism. “I don’t agree that we are doomed to a future of biosurveillance and dystopia,” she says. “There is nothing here that is inevitable. But it means that we have to rouse ourselves. And we have to move forward, doubling down on democracy as the way out of this.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.