Yesterday was April Fools day and part of me wishes that any of the news I’ll be sharing here were some sort of April Fools joke. However, it’s all real and maybe the joke is on us.
The TLDR here is that across the world governments are reacting to the current COVID 19 crisis in different ways, but the common theme across many countries is a move towards stronger digital surveillance. The other story which I discussed in the previous 2 emails is the ongoing realization of the power of China’s censorship machine and the effect this had on disclosing information crucial to understanding and responding to COVID 19 earlier.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Winston Churchill
Dr. Mark van Rijmenam wrote an excellent article “The Rise of Digitalism: Will the Coronavirus Trigger the End of Liberalism”. In this article he compares other movements from history including Nationalism, Communism, and Liberalism with the rise of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “Surveillance Capitalism”. I like Rijmenaam’s narrative here. He defines three kinds of digitalism:
State Digitalism: state surveillance for example what we see in China currently and especially in the Xinjiang province. The Chinese and South Korean and Singaporean response to COVID19 with digital surveillance and monitoring of citizens is being hailed by some people and entering popular narrative as the correct way to enforce a national lockdown. The effectiveness of the curve flattening in these regions and the methods used has the potential to usher in widespread digital surveillance in even the most liberal of nations.
Neo Digitalism: company surveillance in a form beyond what the Western dominant portals such as Facebook and Google practice now. We are seeing this happen today with COVID 19 self reporting apps such as those from Apple . We are also seeing a massive move to online virtual work right now with Zoom usage sky rocketing in spite of concerns over privacy.
Modern Digitalism: In which we use tools like decentralized networks and Self Sovereign identity to store and control our own data.
In any crisis, there is a tendency to adopt whatever works right now and worry about the consequences later. Concerns about digital privacy with the rapid rise of virtual work and teaching are currently being swept aside in the name of “getting things done”. Concerns about rampant increases in surveillance are ignored because “we are in a crisis”
“Hitherto, when your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe effective and coordinated lockdowns are essential right now, for example I am very concerned about the lack of cohesion in the USA. It took Florida till today to order a statewide lockdown. Other states across the US are still not in lockdown. The excellent COVID 19 tracker by the FT shows today how some states are still not recommending lockdowns. States like Texas just recently recommended social distancing, but areas like San Francisco where I live are 2 weeks ahead of these regions. As a strange thought experiment, imagine if California recovers faster than other states and wants to open up travel to Asia, but cannot do so because of the US freedom of movement laws. Might we see the TSA enforcing restrictions of entry into “safe” states from other states in order to move the economy forwards (remember California is the largest state in terms of economy and ranks 5th in the world).
“When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky,” Edward Snowden (interview with the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival).
My concern overall here is that we are entering an age where all bets are off for digital surveillance. Countries will push new laws through mandating the use of smart phone tracking, labelling of citizens according to their health and even the use of a “medical passport”. These all sound like good ideas to stop a pandemic like COVID19, but like the Patriot act rushed into place after 9/11 or the new laws put in place after 2008 (which helped in some cases but also put the USA years behind other countries in terms of financial innovation), these laws have a nasty habit of sticking around after the crisis is over. Are we sure the new laws we put in place now are well though through? Because right now, as Naomi Klein discusses, all the ideas politicians had “lying around” are able to be pushed through quickly in the name of solving the crisis.
As Charles Eisenstein puts it:
“Do we envision a future of electronic hall passes, a system where freedom of movement is governed by state administrators and their software at all times, permanently? Where every movement is tracked, either permitted or prohibited? And, for our protection, where information that threatens our health (as decided, again, by various authorities) is censored for our own good? In the face of an emergency, like unto a state of war, we accept such restrictions and temporarily surrender our freedoms. Similar to 9/11, Covid-19 trumps all objections.”
Top 10 VPN Covid 19 digital rights tracker : excellent summary of trends on digital surveillance.
News on Surveillance:
On a lighter note I really enjoyed this (fake) warning from the CDC:
Stay safe out there.