Is there such a thing as “democratic surveillance”?

Meryem Dutoğlu writes: Authoritarian governments already see the coronavirus pandemic as a great way to test and legitimize the use of surveillance tools. If not abused now, surveillance practices may remain in place in various forms and used for the regime’s sake, such as in the cases of following opponents, manipulating electoral campaigns.

Meryem Dutoğlu

Governments use various methods to monitor people to see whether confinement rules are being followed or not. The use of mass surveillance tools — contact tracking apps, facial recognition cameras, tracking wristbands, surveillance drones, and so on — is becoming more and more popular with governments around the world. Mass surveillance tools aren’t new, but the problem is that the stakeholders within surveillance capitalism are already seeing the pandemic as a great opportunity to test these tools, opening a new door for the “legitimacy and normalization” of surveillance.

We are in the era of surveillance capitalism, a concept defined by social scientist Shoshana Zuboff from Harvard University. Her concept is useful for understanding what we are going through today when it comes to the pandemic, Big Tech and governments. Briefly, surveillance capitalism is the novel market economy in the digital era in which power is about owning “data” and therefore the capacity to “predict” people’s behavior of any kind. The data is commodified by the Big Tech companies who own it through their sale of this data to third parties. These buyers may be companies or governments.

Here is the thing about the pandemic: China, followed by South Korea and Singapore, all deployed surveillance tools in their fight against the virus (although China was already using various surveillance techniques before the outbreak for other purposes). China requires its people to use mobile applications via their smartphones through which they enter their daily fever and health conditions. The app then issues a colored QR code that indicates whether the user can go out or should be quarantined. The total quarantine has been lifted in Wuhan, but people are still obliged to use these apps in order to avoid a second wave. South Korea is using contact tracking apps and trading privacy against a lockdown. This app is based on Bluetooth and geolocation data and warns you if you have been in contact with, or in the same location as, a COVID-19 positive case. Singapore is using e-wristbands and facial recognition cameras in front of buildings in addition to contact tracking apps. Israel is also using a contact tracking app. Russia has already deployed 200,000 facial recognition cameras to monitor its people. Residents of Moscow are also obliged to use a QR code system in which users have to declare their route if they want to move around the city with public transportation.

Europe has not yet taken the same position, but they are gradually warming up to the idea through a search for a solution that complies with strict EU laws on data privacy. France argues that tracking citizens in such a way is against French democratic values. Remember that Italy rejected a total lockdown in early days of the outbreak, saying that it was against freedom, but they were forced to implement one in the end. Now, Italy is testing a tracking app as well. Yet another step, initiated by Germany with the participation of tech companies and research institutions, is a project called Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) in order to develop a contact tracking app amid the outbreak. European governments often stress how strict European data privacy rules are, and they add that these kinds of apps will be used on a “voluntary” basis if ever implemented. In the European version, it has also been announced that the app will rely on Bluetooth data, not geolocation, thus making it less intrusive. A “voluntary basis” is, of course, a more democratic attitude than displayed by their counterparts elsewhere.

For countries with authoritarian tendencies, the risks regarding data privacy are unprecedented. Authoritarian governments already see the pandemic as a great way to test and legitimize the use of surveillance tools. If not abused now, surveillance practices may remain in place in various forms and used for the regime’s sake, such as in the cases of following opponents, manipulating electoral campaigns and other “creative uses” we cannot yet imagine.

Nowadays, many governments are more keen to use these contact tracking apps by arguing that they are the best way to deal with the current outbreak and the most useful method to re-open the economy as soon as possible. For them, it is a tradeoff between data protection and not locking down the economy. Big Tech companies, as some of the main actors of surveillance capitalism, are proud of themselves as they are the ones who developed this tracking software; they are looking forward to collecting as much data as they can.

When it comes to usage on a voluntary basis, it is hard for an ordinary citizen to resist using these apps for data privacy reasons when the issue of public health and a rush to an economic recovery are also at hand. Every country experiences its own journey and it seems that Western democracies are relatively less intrusive than authoritarian ones, for now. One must guarantee data protection during and after the outbreak, if at all possible. From our at least twenty years of experience in the digital age, no country is fully innocent. There are grey zones between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. Whether company or government, in the digital era, an entity is as powerful as the data they possess. Therefore, the risk of data leakage to third parties and the possible permanency of high tech surveillance tools is omnipresent.

On April 2, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and 100 other organizations issued a joint statement: States’ use of digital surveillance technologies to fight the pandemic must respect human rights. On one hand, civil society needs to speak up louder on data privacy and protection during and after the outbreak. On the other hand, if we want to develop reflections on how the post-corona world will look, we have to take into account the complex dynamics of surveillance capitalism.


Post graduate researcher, PhD candidate in comparative politics at Social Sciences Institute of University of Lisbon.