For a long time now, privacy advocates and defenders of civil liberties vehemently opposed surveillance and spoke out against such measures enforced by big tech companies and governments.
But during the lockdowns, many people are slowly being forced to confront increased surveillance being sold as a necessity in helping governments track COVID-19 patients, as well as finding out whether social distancing measures are being followed.
A report released by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (that was started by the former UK Prime Minister) has shockingly stated that increased surveillance is a “price worth paying” in order to beat the pandemic, raising fears that the pandemic could be used to usher in various surveillance norms.
“The careful application of technology offers a way out, at a price: dramatically increased surveillance. But in a three-way choice between overwhelming the NHS, collapsing the economy or living with more tracking and data-sharing, this is a price worth paying,” wrote Chris Yiu, Executive Director of Technology and Public Policy at the institute.
Whether people are fully welcoming the intense surveillance efforts or not, governments as well as tech companies are pushing to use location data and Bluetooth signals, among others, to track people and identify any clusters where social distancing measures are not followed.
Nonetheless, privacy advocates are time and again warning that such surveillance efforts, regardless of their proposed benefit in the moment, ultimately end up posing a threat to individual privacy once the dust settles.
The TBI, on the other hand, says that such fears of privacy invasion are plausible, but the tradeoff is worth it.
“In normal times the degree of monitoring and state intervention we are talking about here would be out of the question in liberal democracies. But these are not normal times, and the alternatives are even more unpalatable. This is quite different from the traditional debate about whether confronting security threats to our way of life merits sacrificing the values of freedom and privacy that define us,” explains Yiu. “Covid-19 is not an ideology, and using the technologies available to us is common sense, not capitulation.”
While the TBI calls for more intrusive practices for the time being, nearly 300 academics recently issued a joint statement disagreeing with TBI’s take. They argued that intrusive practices simply hamper public trust and end up worsening the situation.