In this digital age, our lives have become reduced to virtual communities condensed behind small screens. However, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of hours spent on our phones drastically increased due to quarantine and self-isolation. Notably, people spent most of their day on social media platforms such as Facebook which marked an increase of 27% on a user’s ‘online hours’ and Netflix which also registered an increase of 16%, as per an article written in the New York Times.
Many people are not fully aware that their government is using this pandemic as an incentive to “increase” – because it was already there – mass surveillance on the community. Since SARS-CoV-2 was a reason behind the heightened mass surveillance activity, the worst form this trend has witnessed is that some citizens are not bothered by the fact that their privacy is being hijacked as long as surveillance limits the spread of the virus. Limiting the number of infected people is mainly done by PCR tests and quarantine, among other techniques which do not include mass surveillance. If people are okay with the fact that the government can track their calls, trace their location, and read their messages, then democratic regimes will very soon shift towards totalitarian governments and dictatorships.
Mass surveillance is threatening first and foremost democracy. The latter, described by Churchill as the worst form of Government except for all those others, is on the verge of collapsing. What is democracy without liberty? This has been reduced to ashes by some ‘so-called’ democratic regimes as the governments increased their surveillance on their own citizens and on any person living within their territory, convincing the media that the sole purpose of the surveillance is to track and limit the spreading of the novel coronavirus. This context is nothing but a Trojan horse that will later prove to be a political tool to gain micro and macro data for elections, wars, advertising, and a long list of corrupted purposes. To make the whole concept of data gathering clearer, watch ‘the great hack’ on Netflix. It’s a documentary that portrays how Cambridge Analytica used online data, especially from Facebook – which keeps denying it, to shift the number of votes in favor of one candidate. The algorithm is built to study your behavior and your clicks and to generate a pattern of data that constitutes your digital profile. This algorithm is shared with advertising agencies and third parties in order to give you specific ads. This is why when you’re looking for something, be it a university, an outfit, or a car, you see ads about them whenever you surf the web. Data gathering can be used as a bait for framing: a person who is innocent can be framed as guilty if the data collected on them shows a suspicious activity or a movement similar to that of a suspect or a criminal. Many innocent people would have to face a cruel injustice. Last but definitely not least, mass surveillance is used for military purposes, particularly in drone attacks. A targeted person is tracked for weeks before the military forces decide to shoot the missiles. If surveillance has some few benefits when it comes to capturing the criminals, mass surveillance would make us all suspects until proven otherwise and it would strip us of our liberty, privacy, and our right to be forgotten.
Technology capitalism is paving the way for a technology communism which will fight for the oppressed – the surveilled – against the oppressor – the government and the big data companies. There will be these two hostile camps fighting against each other in the virtual world and in our real one. Those who hold the data hold the power and those who give the data are exploited by these companies which are usually privately owned and occasionally strike deals with governments. The more governments are allowed to collect data, the harder it will be for communities to go back to ‘normal’.
In the case of Lebanon, there is no normal to go back to. Soon, half of the population will lose their jobs. Food and basic daily utilities are increasing in price by the day, we are in the middle of an economic and health crisis and our future is stained by uncertainty and fear. If the government and big data companies manage to implement mass surveillance in a country like Lebanon, even if it’s during a health crisis, then the citizens will have a hard time going back to the streets and protesting under the newly formed tyranny.
Be aware, be responsible, and most importantly, be free.