COVID-1984: The Legitimation of Digital State Surveillance
written by Teodora Strugaru and Zsofi Szelpal
Published as part of European Horizons Spring 2021 policy priority series on Defending Democracy Against Cyber Threats and the Northern Chapters Publications Initiative on Interference in Elections.
The act of surveillance is not a new phenomenon: from the elaborate spy networks of the Roman Empire, to the paranoid intelligence services of communist regimes, humanity’s experience in observation is being fully employed in cyberspace. People are increasingly finding themselves in a panopticon — where one’s conscious of always being watched, without the watcher revealing themselves. In 1975, Foucault used the exceptional measures in a plague-stricken town to contrast the everyday normalisation of the panopticon. Ironically, today’s exceptional Coronavirus measures have triggered a wave of crucial questions about everyday surveillance technologies and its impact on democracy.
Most countries in the world have developed their own COVID-19 Track and Trace apps, but many ran into an obstacle: Google and Apple restricted the software on their devices because it conflicted with their decentralised, device-based data storage policy, triggering an outcry over human rights and weak cyber security protections. Governments in Western Europe — including Germany, France, and the UK — had no alternative but to adopt the Google-Apple model, which meant less national control over the handling of the pandemic.
When did Big Tech become the champion of human rights? Surveillance capitalism is becoming a well-known concept — our data is collected and monetised via targeted advertising, on a daily basis, by unaccountable companies — however the idea becomes unacceptable when partly used by the state, in a worldwide epidemiological emergency. The difference is in our perception of free will, a key element of democracy: we sign up for social media and buy Apple products, but we didn’t sign up for COVID-19.
A dystopian world based on state surveillance for the sake of national security and the collective good seems unimaginable for readers in the West; but for some, mandatory Coronavirus apps are not really exceptional measures. China’s Social Credit System makes Track and Trace, even in its most intrusive forms, seem rudimentary. Oppressive methods of state surveillance are legitimised by COVID-19 and Europe is ready to import them, such as location tracking and facial recognition.
In their efforts to contain the new virus, health and law enforcements have naturally decided to use every tool available. However, they’ve also disturbed the precarious balance between public safety and individual privacy. Because of the fast evolution of the pandemic, states have suddenly found themselves having the perfect trump card to concerns that civil liberties are being violated through data collections and location tracking. If they’re saving lives, do any of us have the right to complain that our governments appear to have taken the phrase ‘Big Brother is watching’ literally?
Israel is having trouble deciding about that. On one side, it has been using its internal security agency’s surveillance technology on and off since March 2020 in the fight against COVID-19. The catch? The Shin Bet phone tracing technology is the same method used to track down Palestinian militants. On the other side, as of March 1st, the Israeli Supreme Court banned the government from using unlimited mobile phone tracking. In response, the Deputy Health Minister tweeted that the court ruling is a “crime against the health of Israeli citizens’’.
The Israeli case embodies what many civil rights activists have been voicing for almost a year: how will the world scale back to pre-COVID digital surveillance levels?
What this health crisis has revealed is that cyber threats are being redefined not only in terms of methods but also their source. Although authoritarian states like China or Israel have proven that they’ve long since mastered cyber warfare, it’s the liberal states’ readiness to do some good-old fashioned spying on their citizens that should make us worried about the future of democracy.
Teodora Strugaru is a second year student at UCL, reading Politics Sociology and East European Studies. She is interested in how corruption and informal networks shape political regimes in East Europe and in exploring the causes and mitigation of security risks in the post-communist bloc. She hopes to one day work in the EU diplomatic sector.
Zsofi Szelpal is a student at UCL reading Politics, Sociology and East European Studies.