While the response to the coronavirus pandemic have ranged from mocking the disease (such has Brazil's Bolsonaro) to physically sealing people inside of apartment buildings in China, governments are deploying an array of legislative and technical measures to track and control citizens during the outbreak which has killed over 21,000 in roughly three months.
As the situation deteriorates, many fear that the current efforts to control the virus will have dire consequences for individual freedoms long after the danger of COVID-19 has passed, according to Bloomberg's Ian Marlow - who notes "In desperate times like these, leaders on all levels are going to extraordinary lengths to do whatever possible to contain the virus."
Like the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis of such magnitude that it threatens to change the world in which we live, with ramifications for how leaders govern. Governments are locking down cities with the help of the army, mapping population flows via smartphones and jailing or sequestering quarantine breakers using banks of CCTV and facial recognition cameras backed by artificial intelligence.
The restrictions are unprecedented in peacetime and made possible only by rapid advances in technology. And while citizens across the globe may be willing to sacrifice civil liberties temporarily, history shows that emergency powers can be hard to relinquish. -Bloomberg
"A primary concern is that if the public gives governments new surveillance powers to contain Covid-19, then governments will keep these powers after the public health crisis ends," says Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation based in San Francisco. "Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government still uses many of the surveillance technologies it developed in the immediate wake."
In China, authorities have leveraged their extensive monitoring network to trace people exposed to COVID's epicenter in Hubei, and encouraged citizens to monitor their neighbors' health and movements. And perhaps this has worked - as the country has lifted standing travel restrictions as the rest of the world goes into lockdown (reported resurgence aside).
"China was able to control the outbreak because government was tracking people closely," said Shanghai worker Joy Huang. "I don’t want to get tracked, but meanwhile, I don’t want infected people not getting tracked. Freedom has a price."
Outside of China, governments are enacting strict measures to combat the pandemic.
In Hungary, a bill has been introduced to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely. It includes up to five years in prison for anyone trying to "distort facts" which might weaken the government's "defense measures."
In Russia, police are using Moscow's extensive CCTV network to arrest people violating quarantine after returning from high-risk countries - deploying one of the world's most advanced facial-recognition systems to monitor over 13,000 people required to self-isolate.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron established a committee to address the pandemic which includes a potential "mobile identification strategy" to track anyone who has come into contact with infected people. Paris, meanwhile, has been using drones to enforce quarantines.
Singapore recently launched a voluntary phone app which uses Bluetooth technology to map close contacts in case an infected person can't remember all of their social interactions.
Israel has granted the police the ability to monitor those suspected to be in isolation, while the internal security service, the Shin Bet, can track and infected person's mobile phone data going back two weeks.
India just enacted an unprecedented three-week lockdown across the entire country, while officials are tracking mobile phones, cross-referencing reservation data from airlines and railways, and stamping the hands of those with suspected infections.
"Given the caseload, a 21-day nationwide lockdown, implemented at such short notice and likely without thinking through all the consequences, seems incomprehensible," said former World Bank economic development expert, Salman Anees Soz - a member of India's opposition Congress Party who compared the move to the prime minister's controversial 2016 cash ban. "It is either that the government knows the disease has spread far beyond the official numbers or the government wants to be seen as doing something decisively. Either way, it reminds me of demonetization. In fact, this is going to be far bigger and poses extreme risks to India’s poor and vulnerable."
The list goes on and on.
My phone, which is satellite-tracked by the Taiwan gov to enforce quarantine, ran out of battery at 7:30 AM. By 8:15, four different units called me. By 8:20, the police were knocking at my door.— Milo Hsieh (@MiloHsieh) March 22, 2020
According to the ACLU's Jennifer Granick, the US doesn't have the ability to enact a China-style quarantine, because people's trackable information is 'disaggregated and mostly in the hands of private companies, not the government."
"We’re going to have to accept, as with any law in our society, a little bit of noncompliance," she said.
Some see the need for greater control.
Australia’s government has received criticism from some health experts for not using enough surveillance and tracking measures to halt the spread of the virus. In Japan, where the outbreak seems to have been less severe than in many other countries, parliament passed a bill that would allow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare an emergency, but he hasn’t yet done so.
Europe has its own sensibilities, with more importance placed on data protection. In Germany, a draft coronavirus law with provisions enabling tracking by smartphone of infected patients without any time limit was amended after the justice minister expressed her opposition. Israel’s state security measures have been opposed at the country’s supreme court. -Bloomberg
According to Nanjing University philosophy professor Gu Su, governments worldwide "should be allowed to concentrate and expand their power, to some extent, to handle the crisis more efficiently," as long as it is "strictly limited."
The problem is that governments have issues with limits, and will push boundaries until enough pitchforks come out. Then, everyone forgets - while big brother has a new suite of toys to track, control and oppress at will.