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Security measures taken to combat COVID-19 are growing not dissimilar to those taken in the aftermath of 9/11. Initially many politicians minimised or even dismissed the threat of the pandemic in their speeches. However, increasingly, governments are resorting to metaphors of war and conflict to underline the urgency of new emergency measures, and to justify them. 

In Britain there is talk of the Blitz spirit, while French President Macron started one of his most viewed addresses with the words ‘we are at war’. This jingoistic language is a reflection of the climate of fear surrounding the pandemic, and acts to mobilise the population behind government efforts, while also preparing citizens for measures that will restrict their civil liberties.

Despite confessing to an initial cover-up, China claims to have dealt with COVID-19 using a combination of decisive action and draconian measures. The Chinese surveillance regime was already one of the most extensive in the world: with the onset of the coronavirus, it has been strengthened, and even potentially legitimised

Many tools in China’s arsenal against the pandemic are decisively authoritarian in character, not least the ‘neighbourhood watches’ verifying the compliance of citizens with lockdowns, but also mass government intrusion into mobile phone data. Yet, the World Health Organisation has praised China’s handling of COVID-19, which seemed to underline the connection between authoritarian measures and good public health practice.

In a move that worried experts around the world, many governments have opted for a radical expansion of state powers in order to tackle the crisis. This has often manifested itself through restrictions on civil society, the convenient silencing of critical voices, and an expansion of the surveillance potential of government agencies. Stressing the need for extreme measures, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel were the first democratic governments to explicitly authorise contact tracking and spyware. Many other governments are increasingly following suit, including France, the UK, Poland, Spain, Romania and Slovakia. 

Some of Europe’s richest countries, including France, the UK and Germany, are cooperating in the area of COVID-19 drone surveillance. Across the continent, there is a rise in legislation aimed at using surveillance technology to curb the spread of COVID-19. 

This surveillance is not restricted to the digital world: in many ways, the virus also has provided an intriguing sociological experiment. In the UK for example, some British police forces, including those of Cambridgeshire and the City of London, are encouraging citizens to snitch on their neighbours through online forms, which many are proving more than eager to do. 

Concerns about  new surveillance powers are grounded in the mixed record of surveillance measures undertaken by many Western governments following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, especially the US government . Despite the concerns of the UN, France has vastly increased its agencies surveillance potential following its own devastating terrorist attacks of 2015. In both of these cases, states with significantly diverging privacy cultures and political systems both proved unwilling to give up their expanded surveillance clout once the threat abated.

Yet the measures are mostly popular with citizens. Extreme measures in times of crisis often coincide with extensive public support. In the wake of a deadly terrorist attack or a public health pandemic it is usually much easier to pass surveillance measures ‘packaged in’ with other emergency measures. Such popular support was highlighted when the declarations of emergency measures worldwide were usually followed by a popularity surge for the political executives, indicating a willingness on the part of citizens to see restrictions on their civil liberties as necessary during a crisis.

Surveillance is not novel to most Western democracies. Scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, stress the prevalence of the commodification of personal information in the world. Corporations are able to unilaterally ‘mine’ users for data, in exchange for ‘free’ use of their services. Governments around the world are now tapping into that data as a resource against COVID-19, for example in the US, where mobile advertising companies are working with public health bodies to analyse the movement of people during the lockdown. While such cooperation might be useful during the pandemic, the case of Cambridge Analytica has demonstrated how valuable data can be directed towards third parties who may abuse it.

The new measures associated with COVID-19 are extensive and build on the pre-existing prevalence of surveillance in Western democracies. They are potentially long-lasting too. States may not willingly give up their expanded surveillance powers when the crisis ends. In a post-coronavirus world, strengthened states wielding heavy surveillance regimes could become the new normal.

Ivan is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: West Midlands Police]