How Governments Across the Globe are Turning to Phone Spying During Coronavirus Crisis
The coronavirus is being used to expand mass surveillance.
Across the world, governments are turning to extreme measures to control the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) from closing borders to putting entire countries on lockdown.
A handful of countries are also looking at the potential of using phone tracking data to ensure its citizens are obeying social distancing advice.
The Washington Post first reported the American government is in talks with big tech companies including Facebook and Google about how location data from mobile phones can be used to stop the spread of the virus.
So far, the government has insisted the data would be anonymous and compiled by a private company in a database. However, Google, Facebook and other tech companies have a poor reputation with privacy.
In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the vast powers of the National Security Administration to spy on citizens at home and abroad.
While the American government attempts to stem the swell of coronavirus cases after a dangerously incompetent first response, extreme measures will need to be implemented in order to mitigate the impending public health crisis.
If other countries are any indicator, the United States will likely take unprecedented measures including expanding surveillance on its own population.
Rather than tracking its own citizens, the key missing link in America’s coronavirus testing thus far has been testing.
South Korea has arguably had the most comprehensive response to the coronavirus and has stemmed the flow of cases to a manageable amount. Korea has tested 10 times the amount of people compared to the United States, 275,000 compared to America’s 25,000. For comparison, South Korea has a population of 51 million and the United States has 327 million.
Due to the lack of testing, many unconfirmed cases are walking around unbeknownst to the person carrying the virus. Similar to Europe, this has led to an untenable situation where the virus can no longer be reasonably contained.
Across Europe and in the United States, leaders have pivoted to the rhetoric of war, in part to convey the severity of the matter. President Donald Trump referred to the coronavirus as the “enemy” in which we are at “war”.
Drumming the beats of war not only conveys the severity of the public health crisis, but it also is used to justify more stringent measures.
The United States has been gripped by war rhetoric since 9/11, and that event was used to build a vast security state and pass draconian laws such as the Patriot Act.
The coronavirus crisis will not be over quickly, President Trump has suggested July or August as a reasonable end, but health experts have said 18 months to two years is a more reasonable timeframe.
The United States and governments across the world will look much different coming out the other side, and likely will be building up their security states as a result.
Across the World
Where else have we seen a citizen-tracking response to the coronavirus?
The Israeli Attorney General approved the cyber-tracking of coronavirus patients including phone location data, according to Haaretz. The data would be used to find who has been in contact with patients and to make sure citizens do not break quarantine.
“All means will be used to fight the spread of the coronavirus,” announced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “including technological means, digital means, and other means that until today I have refrained from using among the civilian population.”
In South Korea, the health ministry is already legally equipped with expansive power to collect private data of people who have contracted an infectious disease.
South Korea’s legal powers are perhaps a look into the future for other countries; the Korean government passed the legislation in response to the 2015 MERS outbreak.
The package of laws allows the Korean government to ‘contact trace’ extremely effectively by using credit card information and location data of both patients and those who have been in contact with patients.
South Korea’s invasive security laws have allowed for a much swifter and effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and other governments may adopt similar measures once the dust settles.
With a massive security apparatus at the disposal of the American government, the coronavirus will likely be used to justify another expansion of the surveillance state.