Unmasking Surveillance: Covid’s security blanket needs pulling back

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Sweeping state surveillance of ordinary citizens is becoming widespread and normalised. As the UK passes the halfway mark in an exceptional vaccine rollout, we need to push back against the expansion of state surveillance that was ostensibly brought in to contain the pandemic.

The amplification of surveillance measures and law enforcement authority across the world has been enormous and frankly, terrifying.

In France, artificial intelligence was incorporated into surveillance cameras to check whether people were complying with rules on wearing masks. In Norway, contract tracing apps monitored users’ locations and relayed them in real-time. In Italy, the government used aggregated data to track whether its citizens were moving more than 500m in 24hrs. In Poland, people have been required to submit photos with their geographic coordinate information attached.

Beyond Europe, Israel has imbued law enforcement with greater powers to use “reasonable force” to break up social gatherings. In Hong Kong, airport arrivals have had to agree to wear tracking bracelets synced to their home address. In South Korea, people’s credit card transactions were monitored and electronic wristbands introduced for contact tracing. In Argentina, people caught breaking quarantine were subsequently forced to download an app that reported their location.

Here in the UK things may have felt less extreme. However, it’s important to recognise that law enforcement already had alarming sweeping powers and access to mass surveillance. London is the most monitored city in the world, with current estimates for the number of CCTV cameras close to 630,000. The sophistication of these cameras is also increasing. While facial recognition has been in use at public events since 2016, the Metropolitan police announced at the start of 2020 that live facial recognition cameras are set to become part of regular policing.

This announcement came before the seriousness of the pandemic was apparent, but Covid-19 has only bolstered arguments in favour of these technologies. The pandemic has seen some disturbing new uses of technology to enforce government guidelines. In Surrey and Sussex, police have used drones to approach groups suspecting of rule-breaking and issue orders to return home. In Derbyshire, police filmed walkers in the Peak District and posted the footage to social media. Despite attracting criticism, the footage remains up. These tactics call to mind China’s use of surveillance to name and shame jaywalkers, an approach that felt unthinkable here in the UK when reported on in 2019.

Measures supposedly deployed to combat the spread of coronavirus can quickly overstep their brief. At the start of 2021, the Singaporean government admitted that data from its contract tracing app could be accessed by police in direct contravention of earlier privacy assurances. While not many such public concessions have been made, it would be desperately naive to assume that this kind of behaviour is unique to the government of Singapore.

Discretionary policing always targets groups unequally, and the pandemic has been no exception. Civil rights pressure group Liberty published data in May last year showing UK citizens of colour were 54% more likely to have been issued fines than those classified as white. Equality campaigner Katrina Ffrench recounted reports of regular, disproportionate interactions with the police to explain their movements, with 22,000 young black men stopped and searched between March and May 2020. An FOI request revealed that despite crime falling by 15% during the first lockdown, police emboldened by new powers had increased their use of force by 12.5%.

Top10VPN, a website advocating for digital privacy, began a database in March 2020 to monitor surveillance measures employed in tackling coronavirus. At the end of the year, it reported that digital tracking measures were in place in 38 countries and physical surveillance measures have been adopted in 27 countries. Europe introduced more new surveillance measures than any other region.

The coronavirus pandemic has provided the perfect gateway justification for these new measures. Posited as temporary necessities and products of exceptional circumstances, they are less likely to receive opposition during times of crisis.

History tells a different story about the longevity and overreach of such new powers. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, legislation was cobbled together, introduced and passed just six weeks later. The Patriot Act enormously expanded law enforcement surveillance capacity, as well as the penalties for an expanded list of crimes.

Using the same language of exceptionality and impermanence, the Patriot Act was first set to expire at the end of 2005. In June that year, however, a reauthorisation bill was passed preserving most of the bill’s original language. In 2012, Obama signed another extension act to preserve surveillance capacities including wiretapping, record searches and surveillance of individuals. When parts of the act expired in June 2015, legislation was passed the following day to re-enact them.

Alongside being far from temporary, the application of new technologies derived from these measures is deeply concerning. Software company Palantir, founded in 2003, began by developing mass-surveillance technology for the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, these technologies now are employed by the immigration department to locate undocumented migrants and, extraordinarily, by local law enforcement to identify people considered “likely” to commit crimes. The databases they compile mean increased police targeting of people of colour, those from poorer backgrounds — and of course, sex workers.

One of Palantir’s partner organisations is Thorn, an NGO set up with the stated aim of combatting child sexual exploitation and trafficking. Thorn utilises Palantir’s facial recognition technology to match escort ads with their social media profiles, effectively outing workers in its databases. While purportedly aiming to rescue minors, Thorn has aided law enforcement in profiling and tracking adults working consensually in the sex industry.

The original technologies may have been the product of an extraordinary time, when exceptional measures were deemed necessary. Those initial justifications paved the way for expanding surveillance technologies that were then not revoked in less essential times. Supposedly temporary measures endure, and are now utilised for far more than just tracking down terrorists.

Sex workers have long been the target of surveillance and, as such, have always been at the forefront of fighting it. International Sex Worker’s Day, observed annually on 2 June, began in 1975 when workers in Lyon occupied Saint-Nizier Church to protest police targeting and harassment. We have always faced disproportionate surveillance and we continue to lend leading voices against it, even as technology makes the methods more sophisticated and insidious.

Digital privacy is not always recognised as crucial. Some readers might subscribe to the “nothing to hide” argument; if a person isn’t doing anything illegal, why should they be concerned? This outlook is fundamentally flawed. It assumes governments always remain benevolent and trustworthy. It dismisses individual rights to a private life and ignores the potential for blackmail. It also overlooks the disproportionate targeting of certain groups that sex workers, particularly those who are transgender or an ethnic minority, are all too familiar with.

Boris Johnson’s government has shown a concerning fondness for authoritarianism and aversion to scrutiny; it is entirely in character to have expanded its powers at a time when organised protest was framed as dangerous and illegal. The coronavirus pandemic has provided the perfect environment to rush legislation enhancing surveillance powers and develop the technologies to strengthen them. It is essential for us to push back against surveillance becoming entrenched, even under its current rebrand as a public health service. Emergency measures introduced in response to the crisis should be frequently reviewed and, once the pandemic ends, done away with entirely.

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