The use of surveillance powers around the world to track individuals in the fight against Covid-19 is an embarrassing symptom of decades lost to preparing for the wrong problem.
The UK’s announcement that the Silicon Valley giant Palantir, an analytics company which typically works with intelligence agencies and immigration enforcement agencies, is partner to a new deal to “coordinate a truly national response to the pandemic” is just one example of how the global response has resorted to the tools of counter-terrorism to deal with a public health emergency. The Israeli NSO Group, a surveillance company normally associated with the targeting of activists and journalists, has also pledged its services towards fighting this crisis. It joins Israel’s Shin Bet, now tasked with monitoring phone locations; authorities in Hong Kong who are tagging people with geo-fenced electronic bracelets; and agencies in Russia now deploying networks of facial recognition cameras to enforce the quarantine.
These gadgets might be temporarily useful. But they’re also an indictment: the result of an approach that has been held victim to a narrow and self-interested view which sees security as a priority only when it makes headlines. The wars on terrorism, drugs, and migration have demanded seemingly endless amounts of airtime, funding, wars, research, ‘emergency’ laws, and hi-tech gadgets. This has spawned a lucrative security industry that has sucked up limited resources from public services and other sectors and left us unprepared for a crisis we knew was coming.
A lucrative security industry that has sucked up limited resources from public services and other sectors [has] left us unprepared for a crisis we knew was coming.
Turning to this industry isn’t the solution: it’s a symptom of the problem.
But as people around the world feel the fear generated by this crisis, it is becoming painfully obvious that our security priorities leading up to this moment have been not just wasteful, but a dangerous distraction. Existential threats posed by health crises, the climate disaster, ecological breakdown, and nuclear weapons are not new; they’ve just been ignored.
This fear must now become the basis for a more realistic and just understanding of what it means for our societies to be secure.
Learning the right lessons
The measures currently being imposed are unprecedented in their global scale and restrictions on liberties.
Residents in China are colour-coded according to their risk of spreading the virus and their movement controlled via an app directly connected to the police. Israel has turned to NSO Group, a hacking company currently embroiled in multiple law suits: one filed by WhatsApp for helping authorities target human rights activists, and another by Saudi activist and friend of Jamal Khasshogi who charges that they were similarly targeted. It will reportedly now help the Defense Ministry rank everyone in Israel on a scale of 1-10 based on their movements and other data to assign their risk of transmitting the virus. Substitute the risk of transmitting Covid-19 with the risk they pose to ill-defined interpretations of ‘national security’, and it’s easy to see how these systems – deployed in what are already two of the most watched countries in the world – can be used after this crisis for political control.
The NHS in the UK and Centre for Disease Control in the US have turned to Palantir, a CIA-funded data analytics company instrumental in helping Trump’s administration target people for deportation, including family members of unaccompanied children. Its tools empower law enforcement in the US drawing on intimate access to details about a person’s family relations, financial information, contact details, and physical attributes, and drive the work of intelligence agencies, including one of the “widest reaching” programmes of the world’s most sophisticated spy agency, the NSA.
While there is little appetite for anyone championing individual freedoms in the face of an overwhelming need for restrictions in the cause of community safety, it would be an epic mistake to look to authoritarian measures and surveillance companies as the solution.
Authoritarians who stoked this crisis in the first place by punishing those trying to prevent it are not a model. In the same way, we should not look to those for answers who have spent the last decades miserably failing to prepare for them, despite no lack of warnings, and an industry which has managed to cash-in.
One estimate puts the financial cost of the US war on terror since 9/11 at $6.4 trillion – much more will have been spent by the other global powers and swallowed up by intelligence agencies and private companies who fuel them. And that’s ignoring the cost in lives, time, research, laws, and energy of some of our society’s greatest minds.
One estimate puts the financial cost of the US war on terror since 9/11 at $6.4 trillion... And where has it left us now?
And where has it left us now? With politicians and securocrats with few answers that don’t involve hi-tech gadgets designed for surveillance.
Instead of declaring an end to our rights and the need for mass surveillance, surely it’s better to invest now in prevention, in things like climate solutions, in research, the health system, to invest in building resilient, educated societies and agencies capable of preventing and responding to crises when they arise?
The lesson here is not that our rights can take a back seat to crises, but that rules and investments should never be allowed to makes them possible on this scale in the first place.
It may well be easy and unhelpful to call for these measures in hindsight. And certainly, now is not the time for blame. But those who care about these issues must be prepared to underline why it is, despite all the world’s resources and despite previous flu pandemics, we’re so utterly ill-prepared for this.
Ultimately, this crisis can be overcome. Some of the other threats facing our planet will not be so easy to resolve. Those concerned about our collective long-term security must now channel this understandable fear and use it as an opportunity for change.
In doing so, people will question our governments the next time they insist that resource-driven wars, draconian surveillance powers, and people looking for better lives are security priorities when we know existential crises are on the horizon. Once we’re through this crisis, let’s focus on stopping the next one.