Surveillance is getting under our skin – and that should alarm us

We are at a watershed moment where surveillance is no longer limited to what we do, but how we feel.

Surveillance is getting under our skin/Getty Images
A phone displays a SARS-COV-2 symptom tracking mobile app in use in Spain [Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images]

The coronavirus is a kind of watershed event for surveillance.

Firstly, it is spreading everywhere with the disease. And secondly, we are seeing a change in the nature of surveillance from over the skin surveillance to under the skin surveillance.

Over the skin surveillance is the things that we do, where we go, who we meet, what we watch on television. We know that, for years, corporations and governments have been developing the abilities, the technological tools, to monitor what we do. And this gives them a lot of insight into our political views, our preferences, even our personalities.

But what is happening now is that surveillance is beginning to go under the skin – revealing not just what we do, but how we feel.

Of course, it is, at the moment, focused on the disease itself. In order to know whether we are sick, the surveillance systems need data about what is happening inside our bodies – our body temperature, maybe our blood pressure, perhaps our heart rate. All of these things can be used to establish our medical condition.

But once surveillance goes under the skin, it can be used for many other purposes. For example, if you read this article or watch the accompanying video, it might offer some clue about your political views or personality.

But what if surveillance systems can actually go under your skin as you are reading or watching it? Perhaps your TV is watching you and a biometric bracelet on your wrist is measuring your body temperature, your blood pressure, your heart rate. They can know not only what you are reading or watching but how it makes you feel – what makes you angry, what makes you laugh, whether you agree with me or if you think – “I am crazy”.

The implications of this are extreme. They can go all the way to the establishment of new totalitarian regimes – worse than anything we have seen before. They can also result in huge revolutions in the job market, in the economy, in personal relations.

I am not against surveillance itself. I think in this pandemic we need to make use of whatever technologies are available to us to fight it and to ease the accompanying economic crisis. Surveillance can help us do that. It can, for example, ease the lockdowns and allow people to go back to work, school or university much earlier than if we did not have this technology.

But it should be done carefully. And there are two main guidelines we should follow.

Firstly, we should monitor people if they are sick, but this should not be done by the police or the security services, which could potentially use the data for other purposes. Independent healthcare authorities or agencies should be established and tasked solely with stopping the pandemic. The data they collect should not be shared with anybody else – not the police, not our bosses, not our insurance companies.

A lot of people, including politicians, are describing the fight against the pandemic as a war. And in a war, we need to involve the security services. But this is not a war. This is a healthcare crisis. It is not about soldiers running around with guns. It is about nurses in hospitals changing dirty bedsheets.

We do not need experts in killing people. We need experts in taking care of people. So if you want to put somebody in charge, put a nurse in charge, not a soldier or a general.

But better yet, there are ways to not put anybody in charge, ways that information can be shared peer to peer without a central authority that collects it all. So, for example, there are technologies that allow your smartphone to talk directly to the smartphones around it. So, let us say you were with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, that person’s smartphone will alert your smartphone and the smartphones of the other people who were around them.

Secondly, if we increase the surveillance of citizens we must always balance it by increasing the surveillance of governments and corporations.

Governments are now making extremely important decisions. They are handing out money like water – hundreds of billions of dollars or, in the case of the United States, trillions of dollars. This should be monitored. Who is making the decisions about where this money goes? Does it go to help big corporations whose directors are friends with government ministers, or does it go to help small businesses?

Governments may try to say that it is too complicated to track all of these decisions and payments, but it is the same technology. So if it is not too complicated to monitor us, then it is not too complicated to monitor them.

So citizens need to demand two things – firstly that their privacy be protected as far as possible, and secondly that any increase in the monitoring of them be accompanied by an increase in the monitoring of governments.

People may think, “OK, we’ll adopt this emergency measure now and when this emergency is over, when there is no more coronavirus, we can dismantle this surveillance system.” But measures taken in an emergency have a nasty tendency of outlasting the emergency. It is easy to build a system of surveillance but very difficult to dismantle afterwards.

There is always a new emergency on the horizon. Even if the number of COVID-19 patients is down to zero, governments will say “but there might be another wave or there might be an Ebola outbreak, so we need to keep this in place”.

So whatever systems are established now, whatever measures are adopted, think of them as long term. And do not just think about your present government. Maybe you trust your present government with this surveillance system, but think about the politician in your country you are most afraid of. Now ask yourself, “What happens if this politician is prime minister or president in four or eight years from now?” What kind of surveillance system do you feel comfortable with them being in charge of?

But the most important thing to realise about all these technological inventions is that technology is never deterministic. It always depends to some extent on politics and on our decisions. We can decide to use the same technology to build very different kinds of societies. We saw this in the 20th century when the same technology was used to build communist dictatorships, fascist regimes and liberal democracies. If you look at North Korea and South Korea today, they have access to the same technology, they just choose to use it differently.

It will be the same with new technologies like surveillance systems. So we have to question the political decisions we take now about how to use them. Because with this pandemic, there is not only a motivation to increase monitoring, there is also agreement from the public. “OK, go under my skin, I allow it.” It is a small step because right now, that information will be gathered to know whether or not you have the disease. But it is, nevertheless, a step in a dangerous direction on a momentous road so we must be careful as we take it.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.