Viral Surveillance

After the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic eased, people around the world started to enjoy their newfound freedom. In fact, due to the expansion of anti-terrorist legislation, many were emerging into a much more restricted world than they’d known before.

Words: Suddaf Chaudry
Illustration: Sebastian König

Denial and obfuscation permitted the spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1919 to rage across the globe. As thousands of soldiers returned from the front lines after the Armistice, leaders were keen to play down the threat of this new respiratory disease for fear of appearing unpatriotic in the wake of a war that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. A century later, the novel coronavirus poses a similarly significant threat, and the political response to it has often amplified existing tensions and provided ammunition for governments and regimes keen to clamp down on the freedoms of their citizens. Once again, denial and obfuscation are exposing us to danger.

In Israel, the government has taken the unprecedented measure to utilise counter-terrorism legislation to save lives during the pandemic. The Knesset has approved mass surveillance of phones to curb the coronavirus. “The Shin Bet has access to vast digital information about everyone in Israel,” says attorney Gil Gan-Mor from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “In terms of democracy, giving such a body access to this information even in terms of counter-terrorism and national security efforts is a dilemma, but the moment a security agency is authorised to deal with non-security issues such as the coronavirus, we’ve crossed a red line. We are in danger of becoming a society under routine surveillance.”

In the UK, the British government passed its Coronavirus Act 2020 in just three days. The bill is 342 pages long and grants the state some of the most astonishing powers ever passed in the country. Crisis legislation such as this could have a permanent impact on long-held civil liberties. Has the virus become a catalyst to engineer a new authoritarian society?

Silkie Carlo, director of civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch believes there are two key areas for concern in the UK’s Coronavirus Bill. “Firstly, the ability of authorities to detain and isolate people has been massively expanded,” she says. “Anyone, including children, can be lawfully detained and isolated. We are not aware of what these isolation facilities will be or what safeguards are in place — especially for children. Furthermore, there is a loosening of protections around detention under the Mental Health Act. So it’s much easier to section people and, of course, if you are sectioned you can be forcibly medicated so the safeguards around that have been drastically lowered.”

“The impact of coronavirus in war zones is of greater uncertainty, adding fuel to ongoing tensions.”

There is real concern across society that many of the powers stipulated in the act still remain unexplained. Additionally, no further justification of these emergency powers has been presented since the act was brought into legislation. Big Brother Watch has recently launched a repeal to Schedule 21 to push parliamentarians to recognise the diminishing state of human rights in the UK.

The NHS launched its own contact tracing app on 24 September, after months of delay, in an attempt to reduce transmission of the virus, but its centralised database has already faced criticism for its potential for abuse by external parties. Natalie Banner, who leads Understanding Patient Data at the Wellcome Trust, says there is currently no discussion between the government and private organisations to develop legislation to regulate the processing of this data. “We are aware of efforts by a group of academics to develop decentralised models and to draft model legislation for oversight over Covid-19 related data processing, but we are not speaking directly to legislators.

“Unless the app is developed in a way that is transparent both technically and in terms of governance, ethics and accountability, it will not be perceived as trustworthy and the public may be understandably cautious about using it. Given the high proportion of the population needed [to make it effective] — some estimates are around 60% — lack of public buy-in will be a huge blocker. This is assuming the app works as intended but it is an empirical question as to whether the technology is effective.”

At the time of writing, the app had been downloaded over 14m times; however, users faced technical difficulties with default messages incorrectly instructing them to self-isolate. The app was designed as a confidence-building tool for the government; however, the confusion by the initial user experience has raised questions about the viability of its benefits in the long-term.

In stark contrast, the German tracing app has been downloaded over 18.4m times, and has been seen as a positive tool in achieving trust among users. The German government’s pandemic motto has been “team game”, a strategy to employ citizens to participate in a game to thwart the virus.

“The moment a security agency is authorised to deal with non-security issues such as the coronavirus, we’ve crossed a red line. We are in danger of becoming a society under routine surveillance.”

But even in cases where apps have been successful, there is a danger of complacency. Governments are using tracing apps as a panacea as cases continue to rise, and if citizens are not clearly notified of the next steps the real cost will not just be the loss of privacy. “Technical glitches” have in effect led to the fragmentation of healthcare and hampered our understanding of the coronavirus, leading to chaos.

In the west, the pandemic has raised the issue of governments’ ability to address concerns of transparency, technology and ethics, but the impact of coronavirus in war zones is of greater uncertainty, adding fuel to ongoing tensions. In Yemen, a country facing one of the world’s gravest humanitarian disasters, the country’s war has left over 17,500 dead and 10 million at risk of famine. Paradoxically, Yemen was the only country that celebrated the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in 2020, with many Yemenis taking advantage of an extended unilateral ceasefire led by the Saudi coalition.

For fragile states like Yemen the objectives for its warring factions remain the same; manipulating a common enemy (the virus) to fulfil integral goals, such as acquisition of territory, while the live conflict is on hold.

“All sides are attempting to enforce their credibility during the pandemic, but in slightly different ways,” says Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic studies at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. “The internationally recognised government in Riyadh is positioning itself as the responsible party by endorsing the ceasefire in theory, but not in practice. The Houthis in Sana’a are using the pandemic to push hard for the Saudi blockade to be lifted. The Southern Transitional Council in Aden are framing their would-be government as the organised and efficient way of dealing with the virus in the south. At the same time, each of the warring sides is using the pandemic as a propaganda tool to highlight the deficiencies of its adversaries. In short, the pandemic is being politicised.”

For some regimes, the virus offers an opportunity to shake off sanctions imposed for crimes against its people. In Syria, the Assad regime, responsible for over 83,500 deaths, is using the pandemic to push for a lift in sanctions in order to normalise the regime. The Taliban in Afghanistan has taken a similar stance by offering access to health workers in non-government-controlled areas in order to consolidate power in the long term.

These fig leaves of peace have left many believing that long-term resolutions are not possible during the pandemic. Frances Z Brown, author of Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape suggests that conflicts may in fact multiply as the situation progresses. “It appears that the pandemic and efforts to contain it are more likely to become objects of increased exploitation and contestation, rather than an off-ramp toward a durable peace,” she says.

As the second wave arrives, the safeguards put in place to protect populations are being weakened. The health crisis has opened the doors for intrusive technologies that control the flow of information online. In Iran, the government initiated a crackdown on virtual private networks (VPN) to stop citizens accessing foreign information about the progress of the virus within its borders. According to Surfshark, a leading VPN, since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, Iran’s institutions have engaged in a continuous attack on the VPN’s infrastructure. Iran has increasingly been retrofitting traditional private and decentralised networks seeking to gain more influence over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure.

“The main governmental advantage of this approach is information disbalance,” says Gabrielle Hermier at Surfshark. “Internet or VPN shutdowns might be implemented through any number of means, varying in technical complexity. These tend to be implemented on a national scale, but some countries like China might filter the internet regionally.”

On 23 March, 2020, data scientists, alarmed by the situation in China, Israel and Iran, penned an open letter urging the UK government to understand the limitations of technology and surveillance in combatting coronavirus, and not regard it as “the magic bullet to problems that are currently unsolvable”.

Carlo believes there are significant limitations to the effectiveness of anonymised location data of citizens which counters the government position. “Individualised data tracking, which is what you see in China, Iran and Israel, means that if someone has reported symptoms their phone can be used to identify them. If they’re supposed to be in quarantine, they can then be approached by law enforcement officers who drag them back. That could happen in the UK, but the fact we haven’t seen law enforcement using mobile data in that way is odd because the Investigatory Powers Act (the snoopers charter) gives authorities the power to do that, and if they did, we would never know about it.”

On 28 March, 2020 a blog on the NHS website titled The power of data in a pandemic revealed that two companies were involved in the government’s data response strategy to the virus: Palantir and Faculty. Palantir is a data-crunching agency with shadowy links to the CIA and MI5, which assisted in the tracking of Osama bin Laden. The brother of Faculty chief executive, Marc Warner, is a №10 adviser on digital solutions and a former Faculty principal, who previously worked closely with Dominic Cummings on the data modelling of the electoral law-breaking Vote Leave campaign.

The lack of transparency in the handling of the coronavirus crisis raises concerns that we may be sleepwalking into a police state. Our liberties will be in question if we do not scrutinise the current legislation — governments will capitalise on the uncertainty and increase surveillance measures to the extent that we are routinely tracked. It is therefore imperative that an emergency timetable is enshrined into law that is reviewed to ensure that the measures implemented are proportionate to the crisis.

The snoopers charter, once dubbed “world-leading legislation” in logging our internet activity, has become the global standard to justify intrusive technologies. The ubiquitous nature of the pandemic has created a milieu for governments to use such legislation to follow in the footsteps of China and institute some of the most draconian laws ever seen in the free world. Speaking truth to power is now an even more pressing challenge for us all.

This is article is from Weapons of Reason’s eighth issue: Conflict.
Weapons of Reason is a publishing project by Human After All, to understand and articulate the global challenges shaping our world.



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The Conflict issue — Weapons of Reason

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