I chose today to talk about a specific theme: how institutions justified mass surveillance by claiming that this is an ‘exception’ under an unprecedented and truly dangerous pandemic. Therefore, this article will be divided into three parts. The first part would define the concept of ‘exception’ and give you more concrete ideas about it. The second segment would explain how mass surveillance really works and how data gathering can happen in the simplest of ways. The third and the final part will be mainly recommendations for governments and institutions on how to deal with this pandemic without the politics of exceptions.
Why is “exception” the worst pandemic?
Exceptions have always prevailed in history and myths. From Sophocles’ Antigone, to the french revolution, to the world wars, to Bush’s administration, to our current pandemic. When an unjust system seems to be normalised, when “exceptions” become the rules, when you are force to be either with or against as if like there are no other options, when you are under the ‘urgency of the catastrophe’ as Italian philosopher Giorgi Agamben puts it, then you have no more laws to protect you, your freedom and privacy no longer exist. Exceptions, my dear readers, have always followed individuals from the tiniest matters to the most important ones: from the concept of ‘cheat day’ in diets to the multiple wars which killed millions of people waged under the name of ‘exception’. But why are ‘exceptions’ most likely bad?
First, most exceptions, especially in politics, can be justified. Exceptions usually come under urgent circumstances and that is where the true danger hides. To make it clearer for you, I’ll give you this example. Post 9/11, President Bush waged his war on Iraq in 2003 as a part of his ‘war on terror’ which he portrayed as an ‘emergency’ or ‘urgent matter’. Not only did the negative consequences outweigh the postive ones, but it has also been very obvious that there were multiple other ways to stop terrorism without killing so many innocent civilians. Now, I personally do not agree with the ethical use of other methods such as drone killing or Artificial Intellignece, but these, among many others, are better options to fight terrorism than the previously waged wars. Under crisis, all options have negative consequences and ethical breaches, but some choices are less catastrophic than others.
Second, one exception will always lead to other exceptions. It becomes an endless vicious circle. In fact, I like to think of it as an addiction. You always push the limits a little further because once you start breaking the rules, you cannot re-fix them, so you keep destroying them. The real problem is when you start to normalize exceptions. Normalizing such a thing is one way of justifying yourself as you know it’s wrong. Another aspect a person might use as a mechanism defence for exceptions is the black or white visions. You can either be with ‘whatever cause it is’ or against it, but never in between. Because having a third option, one which always exists by the way, un-justifies the exceptions taken. This is why in the light of exception, democracies are perhaps weakened.
Third, exceptions will make it harder for you to go back to normalcy. When a country is ruled by a dictatorship, the solution in most cases is revolutions. Exceptions, especially when normalized, will create a new set of norms for you which might be more tyrannical. However, because there is an emergency, you are forced to abide by the new rules. Your freedom is now compromised if not non-existent. In an article on Financial Times, Max Schrems who is an Austrian data privacy activist mentions that if people normalized mass surveillance under this pandmeic, it would take these people ‘years in courts to stop it’. Because exceptions are mostly unlawful, you’ll have to fight against mass surveillance in courts, right? Imagine that you live in a country where the court, in many cases, is biased towards a certain religious or political figure. Who’s going to free you now?
Finally, I said that exceptions can be justified, but I did not mention what it can justify in return. Exceptions justify corruption and unlawful actions, in many cases for political gains. The example I will give is further explained in the second part: mass surveillance. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments are using the crisis as a ‘justified’ excuse to implement mass surveillance, claiming that this is only an exception. Little do people know that this exception is their ultimate way to ‘legitimize’ their need, in this case data gathering on people. But, because it is an exception, you think there are no other options. If you want to know further how mass surveillance used as an exception during this pandemic can negatively impact our world, my article ‘You are under surveillance’ will give you a brief overview.
How does mass surveillance work?
By now, you understand my point of view regarding ‘exceptions’. As I mentioned multiple times now, mass surveillance is a serious threat to our freedom and privacy. But how can governments implement it during the pandemic? Is it an easy process? If you haven’t watched Edward Snowden’s documentary ‘Citizenfour’ or read his book ‘Permanent Record’, I highly advise you to take a look.
To simplify it, your information can be divided between metadata and microdata. Although governments claim that they are using the former one, metadata can easily give them all necessary information they want on you. Have you ever come across the term ‘encrypted messages’? In most cases, this statement is not fully true. Big Data companies can access your messages, your web searches, your location, your full history. The more you share, the more they can access. But that’s just one way to look at things. Institutions can have access to your information sometimes with a click of a link. If you fill surveys or answer questions online, two risks are at stake. One, the people who are collecting the data might share it with third parties, use it for other purposes, and you don’t really know who holds your information. Two, if the institutions used survey generator platforms, those who created them can access as well your information. In that case, your data just became transnational.
In the case of Lebanon, you only have two operating GSM networks, Alfa and MTC touch which are now under the control of the government. If the government decided to fully implement mass surveillance, then all the phone numbers and names will be deprived of their privacy. Anonymity is a myth. The chances of you remaining anonymous are extremely low. In a time where hackers can easily access your data, the last thing you need is a government holding your data against you. Although some people might agree on the mass surveillance measures thinking they have nothing to hide, it’s not a matter of hiding, it is a matter of privacy breaching which can make you feel surveilled 24/7. In the same article, Financial Times brought to our attention how the Iranian government created a self-diagnostic application. Not only did the application have low efficacy, it ‘saved location data of millions of Iranians’.
Why do we trust über, restaurants, and e-shopping platforms with our data? Well, I personally believe that all these applications are collecting and sharing your data with other parties in a way that breaches your privacy much more seriously than mass surveillance decreases your freedom in the light of a pandemic. Collecting data in general is unlawful. But why do we trust such companies with our data?
First, the main reason why such applications gather data is advertising. The third parties are usually ad agencies which redirect ads based on a customer’s preferences. For governments, they might sell you false information or share data with other governments perhaps. Second, when you give your email/name/number to a restaurant, you know that the only thing you will receive from them is offers and publicities. On the other hand, when you give data to your government, the only thing you will most likely receive from them is threats and fear. In my article ‘You are under surveillance’, I mentioned how governments can frame an innocent person and condemn him unjustly, although he or she is innocent. Third, when you give your information to an application, restaurant, shop… you can unsubscribe from their newsletters at any time. When your data goes to the government, you can never have it back.
How to correctly flatten the curve of this pandemic?
I am not a medical expert, but I believe if these five techniques were implemented correctly, the curve will decrease and the privacy of the people will remain intact.
- PCR Tests are expensive. In some countries the governments are doing the tests for free, in other countries, either you pay or you do it for free but thanks to some donors. The problem here is anonymity. People have the right to choose. If a person doesn’t mind being tracked and surveilled, then he/she chose freely to give personal information. If the person doesn’t want to share his personal information, having the full right to do so, communication through a given number should take place instead of names. How? That’s easy. Many of you have seen the websites, applications, surveys, devices in which your data is collected. What can happen is that if you want to remain anonymous, you get an identification number. All numbers will be posted on a different page – no one will know your number or your name – and a green mark next to it means you are okay while a red mark means you should do the test at a specified place. When actually doing the test, a patient has the right to know who will gather the sample and has the right to sign the confidentiality contract.
- DIY Projects. NGOs, governments, and institutions should create home based projects for people, especially in developing countries and poor neighbourhoods, so that people can make safe and protective masks, water filters, soaps, and other tools that can help them stay longer in confinement in the light of an economical crisis. This, of course, comes hand in hand with donations. Motivating people to plant fruits and vegetables in their homes can also allow them to stay longer in quarantine with some activities to fill their times with.
- If governments want to use force, they should not invade people’s privacy. Instead of tracking the location of the people, governments should enforce measures to keep people quarantined whether it’s by fines or warnings or even other methods. However, staying in quarantine is not an easy task: we are facing an economic crisis, domestic violence is increasing, the percentage of jobless people rises by the day… governments should provide a safe environment for people to stay at home.
- Hotlines are important as well. Hotlines can be done through your own mobile phone. If you don’t want to use your own, you can always go to public phones or use another number. In addition, hotlines can also be done through social media platforms, applications, and websites. A basic rule would be knowing who’s responsible for handling the calls and having more than one option to choose from.
- The government should also provide shelters and houses for the people who don’t have them. If people live in dire conditions, then staying in confinement will be harder for them. For the people who live under the poverty lines or do not have access to proper education should have awareness campaigns. keeping in mind that many of them do not have access to internet or electricity, the campaigns should be formed in a way to reach a maximum number of people, whether it’s by timed community visits, megaphones from a police car, and so on…
They say theorizing is different from acting. They say thinking makes you inactive. But if you really act without thinking, will your actions hold any good in the long run? A paper without a theory is worthless, so are your actions. This pandemic started months ago. Governments by now should have had the time to create a solid plan to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Why did they rely mainly on ‘mass surveillance’?
On a final note, I am not denying the fact that many laws or rules are unjust and should definitely be changed. But this change should be available to all equally without prioritization or discrimination. Generalizing is wrong, therefore I acknowledge that in some cases exceptions saved lives or that their positive impact outweighed their negative ones. In this article, I am mainly criticizing one exception and that is ‘mass surveillance’ that was legitimized under this pandemic.