The Surveillance State Thrives During the Pandemic

Can we take government officials at their word that they'll eventually abandon their new powers?


From cellphone tracking to drone eyes in the sky, perused health records, and GPS ankle bracelets, an epidemic of surveillance-state measures is spreading across the world. It's all done in the name of battling the spread of COVID-19, of course, since every crisis is used to justify incursions into our liberty. But long after the virus has done its worst and moved on, we're likely to be stuck with these invasions of our privacy—unless we push back, hard.

The rationales for surveillance are easy to understand, within certain limits. Public health authorities battling the pandemic want to know who is spreading the virus, which people they may have infected, and the movements of those potentially carrying the bug.

China, where the COVID-19 outbreak began, leveraged its already deeply intrusive system of social control to force people to install cellphone apps that assigned them a code according to (allegedly) their perceived risk of spreading contagion. Permission to travel or enter public spaces depended on that code even as the software also tracked their whereabouts and shared data on users' phones with the authorities.

Democratic South Korea didn't go as far as China, but it still tracked people's cellphones and credit card usage. Officials also used surveillance cameras to monitor the movements of those suspected of being infected.

Emulating a Chinese tactic, Spanish authorities turned to aerial drones to detect unauthorized gatherings of people—already a cringe-worthy concept for those of us disinclined to ask permission to meet with friends. Loudspeakers on the drones then ordered violators to return home.

Here in the U.S., government officials joined with tech companies to paw through the location data that most of us share with cellphone apps. The idea is to determine if people are staying at home as ordered; if not, the information detects where we're clustering.

Privacy rules have also been relaxed to allow easier sharing of patients' medical records with government health officials.

And some government agencies are attaching GPS ankle monitors to COVID-19 patients and those suspected of exposure lest they go for a walk in the country or pick up groceries from a curbside.

In most cases, Big Brother-ish tactics have been sold as temporary measures intended to battle very real danger from the COVID-19 pandemic. The surveillance is intended to enforce social distancing and track carriers of the new coronavirus so we can end the health crisis and return to normal. But can we take government officials at their word that they'll eventually abandon their new powers?

"Government demands for new high-tech surveillance powers are all too familiar," warns Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "This includes well-meaning proposals to use various forms of data about disease transmission among people. Even in the midst of a crisis, the public must carefully evaluate such government demands, because surveillance invades privacy, deters free speech, and unfairly burdens vulnerable groups."

"And," Schwartz adds, "new surveillance powers tend to stick around."

The EFF attorney isn't alone in his concerns.

"I think the effects of COVID-19 will be more drastic than the effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11: not only with respect to surveillance, but across many aspects of our society," wrote security expert Bruce Schneier. "And while many things that would never be acceptable during normal time are reasonable things to do right now, we need to makes sure we can ratchet them back once the current pandemic is over."

Our ability or lack thereof to "ratchet them back" is the key point here for surveillance powers. That's because, as Schwartz suggests, governments tend to expand their reach in response to crises, but only to surrender part of that new authority as danger recedes.

"After each major crisis the size of government, though smaller than during the crisis, remained larger than it would have been had the precrisis rate of growth persisted during the interval occupied by the crisis," wrote economic historian Robert Higgs in his 1987 book Crisis and Leviathan. Tellingly, he coined the term "ratchet effect" to describe the phenomenon.

Ratcheting back extraordinary surveillance powers becomes even less likely if the crisis drags on—either because of circumstances or because it's convenient for those who like the power it conveys.

"COVID-19 will be here for the next 18 months or more," insists former Obama administration health policy adviser Ezekiel Emanuel. "We will not be able to return to normalcy until we find a vaccine or effective medications."

Historian Nicholas Mulder predicts—and hopes—that many policy changes to meet the pandemic will become permanent. "Crises have always granted reformist policymakers powers to bypass legislative gridlock and entrenched interests," he notes at Foreign Policy.

If surveillance powers continue to grow along with an ongoing crisis, you can only assume that the sophistication and intrusiveness of that surveillance will also grow.

Along those lines, the Canadian company Draganfly is touting a drone that "can, from a distance, determine fever, which is much different than determining just temperature, cough detection, respiratory rate, heart rate, and blood pressure." The goal is to remotely detect potential COVID-19 cases.

In the U.S., local public health authorities already scrape social media for information about foodborne illness to target and close suspect eateries. Albert Fox Cahn and John Veiszlemlein of the The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project say we should expect the same technique to eventually be applied to the pandemic.

The future looks very closely scrutinized, all for our own health. Unfortunately, our liberty and privacy will die slow and unpleasant deaths in the process. That is, unless we start to actively oppose efforts to monitor our activities.

China, the most pervasive surveillance state on the planet, has fueled as much innovation among those seeking to evade scrutiny as among those exercising it. People learned to install anti-spyware software on their phones or, more simply, to carry two devices—one for mandated apps and ID checks, and the other for unapproved uses.

If cellphones really do become tracking devices, we might even leave them at home when out and about and in need of privacy. The withdrawal would be tough at first, but we can console ourselves with the knowledge that public health authorities would be keenly aware of the location of our coffee tables, and not of us. We could even back away from posting every detail of our lives, including our health, on social media. As for drones… If only there was some technology appropriate for knocking flying objects out of the air, and available in a variety of shot sizes.

It would be best if government officials learned to back off and abandon truly temporary measures after the precipitating crises disappeared. But that's probably a lesson that they'll have to be taught rather forcefully.

NEXT: Restricting Exports Makes It Harder To Fight Coronavirus

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  1. //If surveillance powers continue to grow along with an ongoing crisis, you can only assume that the sophistication and intrusiveness of that surveillance will also grow.//

    Indeed. And do not doubt for a second that from now on, every few years, there will be a new virus, or other contagion, that will prompt ever more intrusive rounds of quarantines and dictatorial directives that everyone stay shuttered in their homes.

    The terrorism thing wore thin after twenty years. It’s viruses now. It’s viruses all the way down.

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  2. They’re promising it’s just the Temporarily Invasive Powers, I’m sure we can trust them.

    1. Awesome article keep writing

  3. >>If cellphones really do become tracking devices, we might even leave them at home

    so many idiots on ID get busted for taking their phones to the murder

    1. We had a case in our area recently where a murderer not only took his phone to the murder, but to the place he dumped the body.

      1. Bring back pay phone

      2. too much.

  4. The quote from Zeke Emmanuel was simply a pathetic ploy. Working for Biden he wants to create the fear that now we’re in house arrest for 18 months. And of course we won’t be but if Biden is successful suddenly he’s the “Savior” of America. It is transparent. Well coordinated attack by the left to destroy the economy, throw people out of work, push for more intrusive government intervention and debt. It’s a moo point, but we are so far past the line that the line is a dot to us.

  5. Yes we need to push back hard. But 80% of the population thinks a police state is AOK. This is mass hysteria and cooler heads will not prevail.

    1. Average humans aren’t very smart. It’s always a small cadre of intellectuals that bring about change. The problem is the evil smart people will literally do anything for power even kill their own. It’s a distinct advantage.

      1. Yes, that’s a problem. Psychopaths are genuinely superior to normal people. That makes it hard to prevent them from taking positions of power, and even raises an ethical question of whether it’s right to try.

  6. The ultimate check is something quaint called….wait for it: The Ballot Box

    If we do not like what our elected state representatives did, then vote them out of office and put in someone else. That deals with the state level. But what about the Federal level?

    The Israelis are doing something nifty, and frightening. They basically track the movement of 9MM people via their smartphones in proximity to each other. A sort of realtime Google timeline. And use that for Wuhan coronavirus contact tracing. Sure as hell, someone here is doing the same. Perhaps even for the same reason.

    Ostensibly, we would only ever do that for a national emergency. There is no going back. The technology is here and being used. You cannot undo that. But if we want the government to not abuse it, we will need to rely on the Judiciary to keep the Legislative and Executive branches honest. I don’t really see a more viable alternative.

    1. The ultimate check is something quaint called….wait for it: The Ballot Box

      What’s quaint is you thinking the Power Elite will surrender their power or change their plans just because we took a vote.

      1. The ballot box has been getting the wrong results across the Western world (US and Europe) the last few years, so they had to use a Chinese virus to create hysteria that would allow them to destroy the economy, shut down businesses, confine people to house arrest, and make all dependent on them for distribution of resources.
        There must be blood

        1. Shedding blood also has a history of undesirable results.

  7. Can we take government officials at their word?

  8. This will pass as quickly as the temporary phone tax to fund the Vietnam war.

  9. Historian Nicholas Mulder predicts—and hopes—that many policy changes to meet the pandemic will become permanent.

    Fuck off, slaver.

    1. Stay home in a pandemic time and try transen berlin for your own pleasure

  10. “I think the effects of COVID-19 will be more drastic than the effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11: not only with respect to surveillance, but across many aspects of our society,” wrote security expert Bruce Schneier.

    Yup, cuz back then we had to fear only those foreign rag heads. Now everybody, even in your own house, is the enemy.

    1. I’m waiting for the moment – probably soon – when armed middle-aged obese guys are marching around our neighborhoods in camouflage voluntarily enforcing the state lock-down order.

      1. Nah, it’s going to be roving bands of lululemon moms who just call the police. Why do your own dirty work when there are dozens of willing and able little tyrants in the making waiting for the a-okay?

        1. Spot on. My wife and I went for a walk around the block. We opted not to wear masks. I can’t describe the looks we received from the moms in their hazmat suits. I’m trying not to go off the rails with this but it bothers me how easily the vast majority of people are buying into the party line and failing to ask even basic questions.

        2. Right. It will be us old fat guys who are the primary targets of the enforcement, not the enforcers. The majority of women in our country are all in for totalitarianism, and were before the epidemic.

  11. What a bizarre definition of “surveillance state”. The USA leads the entire world in imprisonment rate, 5% of the world’s people vs over 25% of the world’s prisoners. That’s largely driven by state/local cops.

    1. Did you have a point?

      1. I’m guessing his point is that we already lost our rights, it’s just now more obvious.

  12. Having lived and worked in China, I was surprised the first time there (1990) how similar the Chinese are to Americans. I think our politicians are shocked at China’s rise in both wealth and power and knowing the similarities of our peoples, they ‘know’ what to do.

  13. The state thrives from any real or (as in this case) manufactured “crisis”, so it’s to be expected that each part of the government will reach for more power and control.

  14. Simple solution, prohibit government from initiating force.

    1. Great idea! You go stop them right now.

      1. I was thinking more like a 28th amendment, “Government shall not initiate force.”

        1. Why would they honor that amendment any more than the others?

    2. That whole “no standing armies” thingy from the era of the Founders was “forgotten.” Huge standing armies…the US Army and armies of armed thugs called “law enforcement” across the land.

  15. “unless we push back, hard”

    That’s what she said!

  16. If ever they wanted to pass surveillance like GPS or facial recognition now is the time with the overwhelming majority of the populace in favor!

    Under normal circumstances about 19% trust government. During this crisis 62% believe in the government. Which makes no sense. They are the same crooked, thieving, INEPT government they were 6 months ago. But NOW they are honest, capable, and care about you? Give me a break sheeple!

  17. Melodramatic rambling thrives all the time here on Reason.

  18. Government is literally what caused this. China’s obfuscation and the US interference with private labs and its complete lack of preparedness despite the threat of biological terrorism for the last 20 years.

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  21. Wasn’t that part of the plan?

  22. Are there any rights left that haven’t been abandoned to win the War on Drugs?

    1. Uh…I’m thinking. I’ll get back to you.

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  24. REFUSE and RESIST!

    The Stasi State powers after 9/11 didn’t go away. Neither will the new ones.

  25. Expect the surveillance State to grow considerably to “protect the nation” against waves 2, 3, and 4 of the virus.

  26. Let’s start with a couple facts before we consider how far we’re willing to let the State squash our liberties.

    1) It was our federal government, from Presidents on down the line, who signed off on opening the Red Communist Chinese door to Wall St. lobbyists. DC sold us out.

    2) It was DC which cooperated with the ChiCom scientists in Chappell Hill on the bat virus project. DC funded it and then defunded it when it became too risky. Xinping and CCP took it home and weaponized it.

    Pre-Trump Washington in cooperation with Wall St. backed the Chinese Communist party through allowing US and Western consumer spending to flow into Chinese banks, financing the CCP unlike any other Communist nation.

    The guilty parties are the US oligarchy and Beijing.
    So, how much surveillance state are we going to tolerate from the guilty party? Time for a re-set, not any adjustment to our liberties.

  27. Heard the saying about the rubber meeting the road?

  28. We can order a few of the masks being advertised and go drone hunting down at the beaches and parks where the KGB has surveillance on us serfs.

    What do you think will be a good choice of weapons, shotgun, rifle or pistol ?
    Hell let’s bring them all !!!!!

    We’ll fit right into the current landscape with those babies on !!!!!

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