Coronavirus surveillance here to stay, experts warn

Extensive surveillance measures introduced across the world during the coronavirus outbreak have widened and become entrenched, digital rights experts say.

Governments across the world have been accused of denting civil rights with the widespread use of techniques such as drone monitoring, contact tracing apps, fever scanners and more.

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The path to a digital dystopia. Photo: MKD

A GROWING TREND

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 saga, governments across the world have implemented a range of digital tracking, physical surveillance and censorship measures in a bid to ‘slow the spread’.

In an effort to ‘persuade’ people to comply with counter-pandemic measures, fear of state punishment has perhaps played a greater role than fear of the loss of privacy and civil liberties. 

However, as the dust begins to clear a little, many are now fearful that sacrificing privacy and civil liberties to enable tech-enabled mass surveillance will ultimately expand state power.

Top10VPN, a pro-digital privacy website that reviews secure internet connection software, has maintained a database since March of surveillance measures implemented to ‘fight the virus’.

The live tracker documents new measures introduced in response to COVID-19 that pose a risk to digital rights across the world. It is updated regularly and the group warns new measures are likely here to stay.

As of last week, the system shows digital tracking is in use in 35 countries, with contact tracing apps in at least 28 countries, including Australia, half of which use GPS location data.

“The number of countries using digital tracking and physical surveillance technologies has steadily risen,” said Samuel Woodhams, the website’s digital rights lead.

“There are few countries on Earth that haven’t implemented increased surveillance during the pandemic.”

The ‘pandemic’ has suddenly made the unthinkable acceptable — mass surveillance on a scale labelled as ‘conspiracy’ just a decade ago. Now, data and privacy may never be the same.

Such developments point to a future where tech-enabled state surveillance becomes an unstoppable international trend. COVID-19 may be the turning point that causes states to make tougher choices to better prepare for both man-made and biological threats.

Outside of contact tracing apps, let’s take a look at the plethora of mechanisms introduced over the last few months in Australia to ‘combat’ the Mind Virus.

BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING

If you don’t feel comfortable signing up to the government’s COVIDSafe tracking app, then you probably won’t be happy to hear about the pandemic drone.. or other initiatives on the cards.

Outside of the digital realm, new technologies introduced in the flesh, including the use of ‘pandemic drones’, fever scanning, CCTV cameras supporting facial recognition, social control by law enforcement agencies and much more. In the future, this is set to continue.

For example, software being developed at the University of South Australia (in conjunction with Canadian drone manufacturer Draganfly) could see drones continued to be used to monitor the health of people moving forward — including spotting sneezes and tracking individual fevers.

Police in the US city of Westport, an hour north of New York, were trialling the software along with Draganfly, but recently pulled out over privacy concerns.

Professor Javaan Chahl, who holds positions with the University of South Australia and the Department of Defence, is developing software for the pandemic drone.

Speaking to reporters, Chahl acknowledged the technology could also be used to watch and target individuals if a future user wanted to. This will not stop his research, however.

Artificial intelligence expert, Professor Toby Walsh urged a cautious approach towards adopting technologies like the pandemic drone:

“I think those are extraordinary measures that I suspect most people in Australia would find too much down the road to taking us to what George Orwell, Huxley and other people have warned us about the surveillance state that we could be in.”

Furthermore, company iOmniscient has developed an automated fever scanning system which can operate through CCTV cameras to check the temperatures of people in crowds. This is set to expand to shopping centers and public spaces across Australia.

Could it be that ‘temporary’ surveillance measures introduced during lockdown periods was always intended to continue and be expanded? History certainly shows this is the case.

THE CONTROL REVOLUTION

The changes now under way are the latest phase of a socio-technical transformation that sociologist James Beniger, writing in the 1980s, called a control revolution

This revolution began with the use of electronic systems for information gathering and communication to facilitate mass production and distribution in the 19th century.

After World War II, the revolution accelerated as governments and industry began to embrace cybernetics, the scientific study of control and communication. 

Even before COVID-19, we were already in the “reflexive phase” of the control revolution, in which big data and predictive technologies have been turned to the goal of automating human behaviour.

The next phase is what we might call the ‘Uberisation of everything’: replacing existing institutions and processes of government with computational code, in the same way Uber replaced government-regulated taxi systems with a smartphone app.

The market, initially designed for production and distribution of goods, quickly expanded to include the same mechanisms being used for mass media, social engineering and surveillance expansions.

The controllers have pursued analogies between human and mechanical systems ever since, in part because they lend themselves to modelling, calculation and prediction.

Economic historians Philip Mirowski and Edward Nik-Khah argue economists moved from “ensuring markets give people what they want” to insisting they can make markets produce “any desired outcome regardless of what people want

We are seeing this analysis proven correct with the rise and domination of new surveillance capitalism industries that have swept the world over the last two decades.

This market, left to its function, will eventually come to see obscurity as an act of terrorism. Such an approach cannot form the basis of a free and open democracy. 

It’s time to address the real implications of digital technology amidst the pandemic and stop the continuation dead in its tracks.


RELATED CONTENT

COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker | Top 10 VPN

A ‘pandemic drone’ and other technology could help limit the spread of coronavirus and ease restrictions sooner, but at what cost? | ABC News

UniSA working on ‘pandemic drone’ to detect coronavirus | University of South Australia

Track and Trace: Embedded Microchips and Facial Recognition | Real News Australia

Australia: The Biometric Surveillance State | TOTT News



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