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Hyper-surveillance under COVID-19

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Australian Minister for Health Greg Hunt speaks during a press conference to launch the new government app

In Brief

As historians of medicine, medical professionals and the renowned critic of modernity Michel Foucault have put it, modern medicine cannot be practiced without mechanisms of surveillance. Modern medicine requires the surveillance of a large concentration of patients so that, with careful nurturing, their self-regulated behaviour begins to model the intentions of authorities.


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This characterisation is not far off from the push we are now witnessing from governments with respect to surveillance and its applications during COVID-19.

This is not to undermine the earnest and life-affirming work of medical professionals worldwide. But it is important that the general public becomes aware of the implications of the intrusive climate of hyper-surveillance that is advancing stealthily in the name of tackling a global emergency.

To date, this climate has three aspects: contact tracing, electronic surveillance and an incipient fellowship among infected persons. This ultimately leaves us in a Catch-22.

One of the most important tools in the public health fight against contagious diseases is contact tracing. In the name of protecting people’s wellbeing, such techniques have gone largely unquestioned. Just in the last three months, the internet research firm Top10VPN has recorded new digital tracking measures in 19 countries and advanced physical surveillance techniques in four.

Digital surveillance is its own kind of ‘pandemic’, a pandemic of exaggerated global surveillance through a device that almost everyone has on their person — the smartphone. Countries such as India, Poland, Russia, Singapore and Israel are employing forms of digital tracking for contact tracing. Many other countries, including liberal states like France, Germany and Australia have followed suit.

Commitments to individual rights enshrined in several national laws would never normally allow this kind of surveillance. But personal fears of contracting the virus and an increased possibility of mass spread have persuaded citizens to concede more of their individual liberties than they might otherwise. While authorities tout self-evident reasons for monitoring the whereabouts of infected people through real time apps, there is no mention of an explicit ‘walk back’ plan once the pandemic is over.

The legal provisos attending to Australia’s COVIDSafe app may stand out as an exception if they are implemented faithfully. Automated apps can be disconcerting when we think of how easily ‘tracing’ can continuously facilitate the state’s defence of ‘the national interest’ against all sorts of unimaginable national security threats.

This leaves unanswered a number of important questions. Who monitors the monitoring? Do the benign aspects of the social contract between governments and individuals apply under emergency conditions?

Contact tracing may seem like an instrument that evolved with early 21st century epidemics starting with SARS, H1N1, MERS and Ebola. But its lineage can be traced to the practices of government in modern nation-states.

The creation of official statistical departments and the deployment of survey tools borrowed from the social sciences represented early attempts to control huge populations by deeply probing into the living conditions of ‘sampled’ individuals. Ministries would then project social needs for the millions by estimating based on the data of a few thousand people. This is the under-scrutinised operation that underpins the information apparatus of any modern state.

On the flip side, for COVID-19 patients from cities that suffered a high number of infections, such as Wuhan, Luzon, New York and Brussels, some form of ‘surveillance’ of one’s family, relatives and friends is likely to be welcomed. This is a way for patients to express solidarity with others taken ill by the same virus. It is also an expression of friendship by asking after a beloved companion’s wellbeing. Likewise, the regular communion between the quarantined in hospitals and their loved ones on Zoom, WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams constitutes an affectionate surveillance.

One must also applaud the soul-stirring spirit of the Italians who sang from their balconies under national lockdown. This has been emulated in France, China, Belgium, Singapore and the ‘One World: Together at Home’ concert initiated by pop singer Lady Gaga. Such concerts are a visible global salute to healthcare workers everywhere dressed in their now-symbolic blue overalls and yellow personal protective gear.

Yet these instances of solidarity through an affectionate surveillance do not obscure the fact that, even in advanced liberal societies, it is acceptable for mobile phone records to be used not just to convict the guilty. They are also tools to avoid convicting the innocent.

We are living today in a globalised surveillance culture. It is widely legitimised by national authorities as our collective saviour, pending the creation of a vaccine against COVID-19. We blindly embrace it as the price of joining the modern world.

But we must also be aware that it should enhance our human rights, instead of trampling them in the name of a science that cures populations by any unscrutinised means. Otherwise, overbearing surveillance risks emerging as the more lasting social virus.

Tamara Nair and Alan Chong are academics based in Singapore researching global governance.  

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

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