Covid-19: Virus hands world leaders sweeping powers they may never give up


  • Internet
  • Thursday, 26 Mar 2020

A surveillance camera in an underground passage in Moscow. Russian police used Moscow’s sprawling camera network to nab more than 200 people for violating quarantine required after returning from high-risk countries. They’ve deployed one of the world’s most comprehensive facial-recognition systems to monitor more than 13,000 people under mandatory self-isolation. — AFP

Last week, the mayor of Ecuador’s largest city ordered the international airport’s runway blocked to prevent a KLM airliner from landing to pick up Dutch tourists stranded by the coronavirus.

Cynthia Viteri, who is now subject to an investigation, defended the decision to move police cars onto the tarmac to stop the plane from carrying out its mercy mission as an attempt to protect her city of Guayaquil from the pandemic.

In desperate times like these, leaders on all levels are going to extraordinary lengths to do whatever possible to contain the virus. And while some are one-off moves like the episode in Ecuador, others can be much more invasive – and potentially last long after the virus threat eventually subsides.

Like the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the US, the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis of such magnitude that it threatens to change the world in which we live, with ramifications for how leaders govern. Governments are locking down cities with the help of the army, mapping population flows via smartphones and jailing or sequestering quarantine breakers using banks of CCTV and facial recognition cameras backed by artificial intelligence.

The restrictions are unprecedented in peacetime and made possible only by rapid advances in technology. And while citizens across the globe may be willing to sacrifice civil liberties temporarily, history shows that emergency powers can be hard to relinquish.

Wuhan containment

"A primary concern is that if the public gives governments new surveillance powers to contain Covid-19, then governments will keep these powers after the public health crisis ends,” said Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney at the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the US government still uses many of the surveillance technologies it developed in the immediate wake.”

In part, the Chinese Communist Party’s containment measures at the virus epicenter in Wuhan set the tone, with what initially seemed shocking steps to isolate the infected being subsequently adopted in countries with no comparable history of China’s state controls. The lockdown of Wuhan expanded to Hubei province and then other parts of the country.

Chinese authorities followed up with more intrusive measures shaped by decades of experience monitoring citizens for dissent and marshaling state-owned companies to the cause. Authorities sourced data from telecom companies, called on private tech companies to set up virtual health hot lines to trace people exposed to Hubei, and later drew on a sprawling network of Communist Party members and community groups, encouraging citizens to go around door-knocking to monitor their neighbors’ health and movements.

On Tuesday, the symbolism was clear as China lifted long-standing travel restrictions on Wuhan even as lockdowns were implemented or tightened in the UK, Italy and the US.

Price of freedom

"China was able to control the outbreak because government was tracking people closely,” said Joy Huang, a white-collar worker in Shanghai. "I don’t want to get tracked, but meanwhile, I don’t want infected people not getting tracked. Freedom has a price.”

The rest of the world is now finding that out.

Already in Hungary, the government has introduced a bill that would give self-styled "illiberal” Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree indefinitely. The opposition tried to slow the bill, but Orban’s coalition has the supermajority it needs to pass the legislation anyway. It includes provisions to impose up to five years in prison on anyone judged to "distort facts” to weaken the government’s "defense measures”.

Russian police meanwhile used Moscow’s sprawling camera network to nab more than 200 people for violating quarantine required after returning from high-risk countries. They’ve deployed one of the world’s most comprehensive facial-recognition systems to monitor more than 13,000 people under mandatory self-isolation.

Cambodia to Israel

In Cambodia, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen – who flew to China shortly after the outbreak to express solidarity with Beijing – has been accused by Human Rights Watch of using concerns over "fake news” related to the virus to arrest opposition critics.

It’s not just those governments with authoritarian tendencies that are stepping in to restrict their citizens. French President Emmanuel Macron set up a committee to come up with measures to fight the virus that include a possible "mobile identification strategy” for anyone who has been in contact with infected people. That’s after Paris police deployed drones last week to make sure the city’s inhabitants respect confinement rules.

Singapore, which has won praise for mostly containing the virus, recently launched a mobile phone app that uses Bluetooth technology to map close contacts in case a sick person fails to recall all of their social interactions. The app remains voluntary.

There’s no opt-out in Israel, where police have been given powers to monitor those supposed to be in isolation, and the internal security service known as the Shin Bet now has the authority to track an infected person’s mobile phone data going back two weeks.

Cultural differences

Although democratic Taiwan and South Korea have seen success containing the virus, some experts suggest Asia’s experience with pandemics, as well as citizens’ different experience of politics, has enabled slightly more intrusive means of control.

In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed an unprecedented three-week lockdown across the whole country from midnight Tuesday, officials are tracking mobile phones, pulling out reservation data from airlines and railways, and stamping people’s hands with indelible ink as part of a process to follow suspected infections. Modi’s administration also used the virus as a reason to clear an anti-government protest that had camped out in New Delhi. Although India has fewer than 700 confirmed cases – less than half of Ireland’s tally – its shutdown is the world’s most severe, and police and vigilantes were filmed on Wednesday beating people standing outside.

"Given the caseload, a 21-day nationwide lockdown, implemented at such short notice and likely without thinking through all the consequences, seems incomprehensible,” said Salman Anees Soz, a member of India’s opposition Congress Party and a former World Bank economic development expert, who compared it to the prime minister’s controversial cash ban in 2016. "It is either that the government knows the disease has spread far beyond the official numbers or the government wants to be seen as doing something decisively. Either way, it reminds me of demonetisation. In fact, this is going to be far bigger and poses extreme risks to India’s poor and vulnerable.”

Cultural differences mean that such strict controls are running into opposition in the West. In Canada, the health minister warned citizens that failing to self-isolate – like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose wife tested positive for Covid-19 – could bring harsher measures and "put our civil liberties in jeopardy”. The UK has seen thronging parks and packed London Underground tube trains, Australians are still flocking to the beach, while in the US students have defied guidelines and gathered in huge crowds for the Spring Break.

More control

US President Donald Trump has fueled the sense that a clampdown is questionable, suggesting that a time limit be set on restrictions to avoid unnecessary damage to the economy, apparently without recourse to medical advice.

Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the US doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a China-style enforcement of stay-at-home policies, because the information available is disaggregated and mostly in the hands of private companies, not the government. "We’re going to have to accept, as with any law in our society, a little bit of noncompliance,” Granick said.

Some see the need for greater control.

Australia’s government has received criticism from some health experts for not using enough surveillance and tracking measures to halt the spread of the virus. In Japan, where the outbreak seems to have been less severe than in many other countries, parliament passed a bill that would allow Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to declare an emergency, but he hasn’t yet done so.

Europe has its own sensibilities, with more importance placed on data protection. In Germany, a draft coronavirus law with provisions enabling tracking by smartphone of infected patients without any time limit was amended after the justice minister expressed her opposition. Israel’s state security measures have been opposed at the country’s supreme court.

For Gu Su, a professor of philosophy and law at Nanjing University, China’s political culture "made its people more amenable to the draconian measures”. However, governments worldwide "should be allowed to concentrate and expand their power, to some extent, to handle the crisis more efficiently” – so long as it is "strictly limited”, said Gu.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, Mayor Viteri’s controversial actions to halt a Dutch airliner from landing failed to stem the virus. Hours later, she announced that she had tested positive for Covid-19. – Bloomberg

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