Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, tech companies have repeatedly been called upon to help solve a host of problems. They’ve certainly answered that call, filling in various needs ranging from education to logistics networks to use of drones for delivering medical supplies.
But not everything has been roses. Some governments around the world have been using tech to gain more power in the name of fighting COVID-19. More people should contest these abuses of power, lest the world devolve into a surveillance state.
In Singapore, police used a remote-controlled robot to patrol a park. The robot monitored foot traffic and relayed messages to urge people to practice social distancing. In theory, this is an innocent-enough way of informing people of the dangers of COVID-19 and reducing exposure and transmission. In practice, it’s an instance of Orwellian overreach — “Big Brother is watching you.”
The Singapore government is sullying safety protocol, too, by keeping a centralized database of cases that anyone can view online. The database doesn’t divulge names, but it does keep location data. While that sounds less threatening, it’s still problematic. As The New York Times showed, identifying people based on location data alone is relatively easy.
Sure, contact tracing can be an effective way of monitoring the disease’s spread and getting much-needed information to those who are at risk, but safeguards like opt-in programs and deletion standards must be put in place to protect citizens’ privacy.
Meanwhile, in Poland, the government is requiring people to download a selfie application, wherein people who need to isolate for 14 days have to upload selfies of themselves at home to a government-run app. If they don’t, they’re subject to police visits.
In Israel, the government used phone location data to impose quarantine requirements “without compromise.” Thankfully, this particular program has since come to an end after an oversight group within Israeli parliament raised a stink. But the fact that this was ever implemented is seriously troubling.
From policing robots to government selfie quota — none of this is good news for civilians, but perhaps the most alarming development so far is how some governments are now using drone technology to monitor citizens and enforce lockdowns and restrictions.
For example, take China, a notoriously authoritarian state. It has already used drones to enforce prevention measures, and many European countries are following suit. One police department in the U.K. is uploading drone footage to their social media profile to socially shame people for not complying with social distancing measures. In France, drones are being used to enforce lockdown orders by the government. If these measures aren’t challenged, then authoritarian regimes will run amok.
Even the United States has imported these kinds of draconian and authoritarian tactics. In New York, for example, law enforcement are using drones to spot and fine residents in an effort to enforce lockdown orders. California and New Jersey, too, have used drones as a method of monitoring and enforcing social distancing during lockdowns. New Jersey is using the tech to spot non-compliant citizens so they can issue them fines of up to $1,000.
This is all “to help combat people not following social distancing,” according to one police department. While that may seem like a harsh invasion of privacy, a New Jersey police chief assures us it’s worth it “if it saves one life.” City authorities are making similar efforts to encourage social distancing among residents in Savannah, Georgia.
Limiting human contact and curbing the infection rate are valid concerns, but shrugging off constitutional protections of privacy will have far-reaching implications for the future.
Thankfully, these actions and orders have not gone uncontested. People are becoming increasingly vocal in their criticisms of such programs. Groups such as the ACLU have expressed concern over the privacy questions raised by various track and trace programs, as well as access to cellphone location data. More people need to step up and express their concern in order to make sure that the government is not acting without any checks whatsoever.
We have to think long-term during this coronavirus crisis; we can’t let the government use it as a reason to chip away at our rights as citizens. Here in America, the current outcry against what’s already happening simply isn’t enough. More of us need to speak up in defense of what’s rightfully ours. After all, if we allow the government’s tech overreach to be normalized, we may well find that the freedoms we surrender for a time are freedoms that we never get back.
• James Czerniawski is a contributor for Young Voices. You can follow him on twitter @JamesCz19.