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Thu 29 October 2020
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Steve Shaw reports on how concerns are already being raised about the introduction of new intrusive surveillance regimes being installed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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First the excuse was terrorism. In the years following 9/11, governments around the world capitalised on fear like never before and it became the excuse for the introduction of some of the most draconian surveillance systems the world had ever seen.

Even the citizens of democratic countries rolled over and accepted it because they were told by their governments that these systems would keep them safe. But behind the scenes, the ‘metadata’ of their phone conversations was being recorded, text messages logged and smart devices tracked. Even members of the United Nations were bugged by the US Government and human rights groups such as Amnesty International had their communications intercepted by the British.

National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden explained that these mass surveillance systems, many of which have been found to be illegal, did not discriminate between wrongdoers and do-gooders – they simply collected and recorded data and “hoped that one day it will become useful”.

Today, as the spectre of terrorism has faded, a new threat has emerged in COVID-19. Once again, the solution being touted is to hand governments powers that would normally ‘be out of the question in liberal democracies’.

People say it is just an emergency and when the emergency is over we will dismantle this new surveillance system but it usually doesn’t happen like that.

Yuval Noah Harari

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change argues that policy-makers should be given the power to “track what is happening in granular detail and in real-time”, explaining that the intrusion into the lives of the public would be a “price worth paying”. The think tank completely ignores historic evidence that shows that, when such power is given, it is almost always abused.

Mass surveillance has now become “contact tracing” and, rather than spy agencies taking the legally murky route of secretly tapping into phones and finding back-doors into operating systems, the public is being asked to willingly install tracking apps. These apps will log an individual’s every movement on a government server and, when the owner of a smartphone is diagnosed with COVID-19, those who have been monitored nearby will be notified and told to self-isolate.

In an effort to protect privacy, tech giants Apple and Google came together and proposed a ‘decentralised’ version of the technology, capable of logging contact between devices only on the phones themselves and not on a government server. The companies also said the technology would stop being available once the pandemic has ended. Several countries expressed a willingness to adopt it but the UK Government didn’t. Instead, it favours a system developed with UK spy agency GCHQ – the same agency an Investigatory Powers Tribunal ruled in 2016 had spent seven years illegally building a detailed database of the entire country’s communications, including all emails and text messages.

The UK Government has also claimed that the system will log the data anonymously but a draft memo reportedly shows ministers could be given the ability to de-anonymise the data if it is considered “proportionate”. It does not state the reasons why this function would ever be needed.


Patrolling Thoughts and Feelings

In parts of China, contact tracing technology is already in use, with software on people’s phones giving red and green lights to indicate if they are allowed to leave their home. Only those with the green code can go past checkpoints in subway stations, restaurants, hotels, and apartment blocks. However, neither the company behind the software nor Chinese officials have explained how the system actually classifies whether someone gets a red or green light. Analysis by the New York Times also found that, like the UK’s GCHQ system, China’s software was developed in partnership with the police and, as a result, all the collected data is being shared with them.

Governments have been exploring how contact tracing can be paired with biometric surveillance including CCTV cameras capable of reading a person’s body temperature and health tracking bracelets – similar to consumer wearables like the Apple Watch and Fitbit. Liechtenstein has become the first country in Europe to begin trialling the bracelet technology, which logs data ranging from skin temperature and breathing to pulse rates. Researchers in the US are exploring their own version, which may also record sleeping patterns.

“People say it is just an emergency and when the emergency is over we will dismantle this new surveillance system but it usually doesn’t happen like that,” said international best-selling writer and academic Yuval Noah Harari in an interview with Iran International TV. “It is easy to take it in but very difficult to take it out again because there is always a new emergency.

“If you wore a biometric bracelet that monitors at every moment, your body temperature, your heartbeat and your blood pressure, that can give the government knowledge. Not just about what disease you have but also how you feel about what you see on television, for example, are you scared by what you are hearing? Are you bored by it? Do you like it? Do you not like it? 

“Just imagine a place like North Korea in 10 years when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet and when you watch on television or hear on the radio a speech by the big leader, they know how you feel about it. If you are angry about the big leader you can smile, you can force yourself to smile at the big leader and you can clap your hands at what the big leader says but they know you are actually angry because they are watching your blood pressure, body temperature and you have no control over that.”


Uyghur Repression in Xinjiang

Imagining this dystopian reality is not necessary because, to some degree, it already exists in north-west China, in a place called Xinjiang – home to the Uyghur population.

Louisa Coan Greve, director of Global Advocacy at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told Byline Times that what is happening there should be a warning to the world.

“The Uyghurs’ experience is a red-alert warning for the world,” she said. “The world needs to take heed before it is too late. The Uyghurs’ experience shows that a state can ramp up a techno-totalitarian control over 12 million people in a very short time. The Uyghurs live under the most intensive surveillance regime the world has ever known. The Uyghur region is rightly called a ‘no rights zone’. It was the first place where the Government forced 100% of the population – albeit only Uyghurs, not Han Chinese – to give DNA samples and other biometric data like face scans, voice prints, and iris scans. 

“That provides the big-data on a sufficient scale to rapidly develop AI-enabled technical surveillance. There is a reason that tech firms have made and invested billions of dollars in Xinjiang, a place that had no high-tech industry just a few years ago. The data necessary to lead on artificial intelligence could not have been collected on this scale anywhere else.

“Human rights researchers have found it hard to imagine how the surveillance of Uyghurs could get worse, given the state’s capacity to throw millions into detention and achieve 100% surveillance of electronic devices. Add the fact that not carrying your phone can get you thrown into a prison camp, the Chinese Government appears to have created the perfect total-surveillance state in the Uyghur homeland.”

She added that, even in George Orwell’s 1984, people were not forced to carry Big Brother screens around with them 24 hours a day. 

This Orwellian society was developed by China using the same rhetoric that Western democracies used to justify their mass surveillance programmes – to keep people safe. With the new justification of keeping people healthy, China’s policy-makers, like many in other parts of the world are likely to be looking to seize the fresh opportunity presented by the Coronavirus.

“Is the world we build after this pandemic to be one of surveillance, control and fear?” Dr Tom Fisher, senior researcher at Privacy International, told Byline Times. “We are seeing unprecedented levels of surveillance emerging in the fight against the virus. These emerge not only from government initiatives, but also measures promoted by the surveillance and biometrics industry.

“It’s essential that the measures and technologies introduced are necessary and proportionate, and driven by epidemiological need. It’s particularly important that these measures be time-limited. Introducing new forms of physical surveillance infrastructure, like cameras for measuring body heat, is of great concern. 

“We know from experience that, even when justified for a short-term purpose, this infrastructure becomes a permanent part of our lives. It is hard to predict how these tools might be used in the future, as the biometrics industry finds new ways of exploiting this new source of data. For example, digital CCTV has led to companies developing concerning technologies ranging from facial recognition to emotion recognition – who knows to what new uses they’d put in measures like thermal cameras.”


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