Experts Warn Increased Surveillance to Track the Outbreak Could Become Permanent

Defenders of civil liberties fear that the erosion of privacy will become a long-term consequence of the pandemic.

(© larryhw/Adobe)

As countries around the world combat the coronavirus outbreak, governments that already operated sophisticated surveillance programs are ramping up the tracking of their citizens.

"The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous."

Countries like China, South Korea, Israel, Singapore and others are closely monitoring citizens to track the spread of the virus and prevent further infections, and policymakers in the United States have proposed similar steps. These shifts in policy have civil liberties defenders alarmed, as history has shown increases in surveillance tend to stick around after an emergency is over.

In China, where the virus originated and surveillance is already ubiquitous, the government has taken measures like having people scan a QR code and answer questions about their health and travel history to enter their apartment building. The country has also increased the tracking of cell phones, encouraged citizens to report people who appear to be sick, utilized surveillance drones, and developed facial recognition that can identify someone even if they're wearing a mask.

In Israel, the government has begun tracking people's cell phones without a court order under a program that was initially meant to counter terrorism. Singapore has also been closely tracking people's movements using cell phone data. In South Korea, the government has been monitoring citizens' credit card and cell phone data and has heavily utilized facial recognition to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Here at home, the United States government and state governments have been using cell phone data to determine where people are congregating. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's task force to combat the coronavirus outbreak has proposed using cell phone data to track coronavirus patients. Cities around the nation are also using surveillance drones to maintain social distancing orders. Companies like Apple and Google that work closely with the federal government are currently developing systems to track Americans' cell phones.

All of this might sound acceptable if you're worried about containing the outbreak and getting back to normal life, but as we saw when the Patriot Act was passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, expansions of the surveillance state can persist long after the emergency that seemed to justify them.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, says that this public health emergency requires bold action, but he worries that actions may be taken that will infringe on our privacy rights.

"This is an extraordinary crisis that justifies things that would not be justified in ordinary times, but we, of course, worry that any such things would be made permanent," Stanley says.

Stanley notes that the 9/11 situation was different from this current situation because we still face the threat of terrorism today, and we always will. The Patriot Act was a response to that threat, even if it was an extreme response. With this pandemic, it's quite possible we won't face something like this again for some time.

"We know that for the last seven or eight decades, we haven't seen a microbe this dangerous become a pandemic, and it's reasonable to expect it's not going to be happening for a while afterward," Stanley says. "We do know that when a vaccine is produced and is produced widely enough, the COVID crisis will be over. This does, unlike 9/11, have a definitive ending."

The ACLU released a white paper last week outlining the problems with using location data from cell phones and how policymakers should proceed when they discuss the usage of surveillance to combat the outbreak.

"Location data contains an enormously invasive and personal set of information about each of us, with the potential to reveal such things as people's social, sexual, religious, and political associations," they wrote. "The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous. Any uses of such data should be temporary, restricted to public health agencies and purposes, and should make the greatest possible use of available techniques that allow for privacy and anonymity to be protected, even as the data is used."

"The first thing you need to combat pervasive surveillance is to know that it's occurring."

Sara Collins, policy counsel at the digital rights organization Public Knowledge, says that one of the problems with the current administration is that there's not much transparency, so she worries surveillance could be increased without the public realizing it.

"You'll often see the White House come out with something—that they're going to take this action or an agency just says they're going to take this action—and there's no congressional authorization," Collins says. "There's no regulation. There's nothing there for the public discourse."

Collins says it's almost impossible to protect against infringements on people's privacy rights if you don't actually know what kind of surveillance is being done and at what scale.

"I think that's very concerning when there's no accountability and no way to understand what's actually happening," Collins says. "The first thing you need to combat pervasive surveillance is to know that it's occurring."

We should also be worried about corporate surveillance, Collins says, because the tech companies that keep track of our data work closely with the government and do not have a good track record when it comes to protecting people's privacy. She suspects these companies could use the coronavirus outbreak to defend the kind of data collection they've been engaging in for years.

Collins stresses that any increase in surveillance should be transparent and short-lived, and that there should be a limit on how long people's data can be kept. Otherwise, she says, we're risking an indefinite infringement on privacy rights. Her organization will be keeping tabs as the crisis progresses.

It's not that we shouldn't avail ourselves of modern technology to fight the pandemic. Indeed, once lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted, public health officials must increase their ability to isolate new cases and trace, test, and quarantine contacts.

But tracking the entire populace "Big Brother"-style is not the ideal way out of the crisis. Last week, for instance, a group of policy experts -- including former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb -- published recommendations for how to achieve containment. They emphasized the need for widespread diagnostic and serologic testing as well as rapid case-based interventions, among other measures -- and they, too, were wary of pervasive measures to follow citizens.

The group wrote: "Improved capacity [for timely contact tracing] will be most effective if coordinated with health care providers, health systems, and health plans and supported by timely electronic data sharing. Cell phone-based apps recording proximity events between individuals are unlikely to have adequate discriminating ability or adoption to achieve public health utility, while introducing serious privacy, security, and logistical concerns."

The bottom line: Any broad increases in surveillance should be carefully considered before we go along with them out of fear. The Founders knew that privacy is integral to freedom; that's why they wrote the Fourth Amendment to protect it, and that right shouldn't be thrown away because we're in an emergency. Once you lose a right, you don't tend to get it back.

Thor Benson
Thor Benson is an independent journalist who has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Wired and many other publications. He currently lives in New Orleans, LA.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on
Photo by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
Virus image by Fusion Medical Animation on Unsplash

"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet

Hear the episode:

Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is the summer editor of Most recently, she was a staff writer covering biotech at OneZero, Medium's tech and science publication. Before that, she was the associate editor for biomedicine at MIT Technology Review. Her stories on science and medicine have also appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and STAT.