Health or Privacy: mass surveillance in a Covid-19 climateWe're all for the safety of the people. Who isn't? The concern however, is that this same technology that identifies fevers and coughs, could equally interpret deeper human feelings - anger, joy, love, boredom. Corporations and governments could, in essence, use our biometric data to predict and manipulate our emotions and sell us anything they want.
Wed 17 Mar 2021
7 min read
As part of efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus, governments around the world have taken drastic surveillance measures. From the UK's Track and Trace app (link to our blog on track and trace) to China's drones and public sensors, mass surveillance has been deployed worldwide, to prevent and diminish the spread of Covid-19.
We're all for the safety of the people. Who isn't? The concern however, is that this same technology that identifies fevers and coughs, could equally interpret deeper human feelings - anger, joy, love, boredom. Corporations and governments could, in essence, use our biometric data to predict and manipulate our emotions and sell us anything they want.
Are we giving up our privacy too readily or is it a worthy price to pay when faced with a deadly virus?
What is under-the-skin surveillance and what threat does its global normalisation pose to the public?
Surveillance tools such as fever detection goggles, drones that monitor curfews and lockdown, and apps that track the spread of symptoms are being used in countries including Cambodia, China, Pakistan and Thailand.
Professor Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, explains the difference between under-the-skin and over-the-skin surveillance:
‘Over-the-skin-surveillance is monitoring what you do in the outside world, where you go, whom you meet, what you watch on TV or which websites you visit online. It doesn't go into your body. Under-the-skin-surveillance is monitoring what's happening inside your body. It starts with things like your temperature, but then it can go to your blood pressure, to your heart rate, to your brain activity.’
This software uses biometric readings to understand behavioural patterns, enabling quicker reaction times to potential health threats via the monitoring of gathering crowds. Drones will not be used in individual private yards, nor does the software employ facial recognition technology, according to a police statement.
Though such measures were introduced on a temporary basis, to control the spread of infections, the normalisation of global mass surveillance has, slowly but surely, proven to be more and more of a threat to civil rights. From GPS contact tracing apps to facial recognition CCTV, digital tracking has now been used in 35 countries, throughout the outbreak of Covid-19.
This precedent for invasive security measures was initially set by the Israeli government, the first ones to implement Covid-19 phone tracking measures. It is said that Israeli internal security agencies were monitoring phones of people with coronavirus, so as to keep track of the spread of infections.
Not long after, Qatar began to impose its virus tracing app, which if not downloaded, could risk you up to three years in prison or a potential £43,000 fine.
Many other countries have been trying their best to implement mass surveillance technology whilst ensuring a basis of privacy. For instance, France has been testing various CCTV AI tools, which scan through passengers, on public transport, and identify how many individuals aren’t wearing face masks. While this software has raised some brows, it does in fact comply with GDPR laws. This is mainly because the technology itself does not keep hold of visual data (images) and is not being used as a way to incriminate individuals. Rather, it is relied on as a precautionary measure. By scanning the ratio of individuals wearing masks to those that aren’t, the government is able to anticipate future virus outbreaks.
Also in line is South Korea, having recently put forth electronic wristbands, as a way to keep track of individuals breaking quarantine. Korean authorities were initially flirting with the idea of making these wristbands mandatory for anyone who was self-isolating. However, this was quickly condemned as a major obstacle to constitutional rights. It seemed, then, that the government had to settle for these wristbands to be worn consensually and only by people who had already broken quarantine.
Drones and Biometric Mass Surveillance in China
In Beijing, contactless temperature detection software - capable of recognising faces to track individuals - was deployed at ‘underground stations, schools and community centres, in Shanghai and Shenzhen’. In Chengdu city, the police had even been issued with smart helmets that would measure the temperature of anyone within a 5m radius, alerting officers of anyone with a fever.
'Shout drones' - speaker-equipped to spread verbal warnings to shame non-compliant individuals - have also been used. In fact, an elderly woman was ordered to 'go home and rest' by a drone, after having accidentally got caught in a crowd of individuals.
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