The Surveillance State Thrives During the Pandemic

From cellphone tracking to drone eyes in the sky, perused health records, and GPS ankle bracelets, an epidemic of surveillance-state measures is spreading across the world. It’s all done in the name of battling the spread of COVID-19, of course, since every crisis is used to justify incursions into our liberty. But long after the virus has done its worst and moved on, we’re likely to be stuck with these invasions of our privacy—unless we push back, hard.

The rationales for surveillance are easy to understand, within certain limits. Public health authorities battling the pandemic want to know who is spreading the virus, which people they may have infected, and the movements of those potentially carrying the bug.

China, where the COVID-19 outbreak began, leveraged its already deeply intrusive system of social control to force people to install cellphone apps that assigned them a code according to (allegedly) their perceived risk of spreading contagion. Permission to travel or enter public spaces depended on that code even as the software also tracked their whereabouts and shared data on users’ phones with the authorities.