After COVID-19, Will We Live in a Big Brother World?

June 1, 2020
Bessma Momani-Square.jpg
Reuters/Aly Song

This article is a part of Global Cooperation after COVID-19, an essay series offering analysis of the post-pandemic world.


echnologists have been warning us for years — long before the outbreak late last December of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — about the sophisticated surveillance technology increasingly applied to our everyday lives, as businesses watch our every move, predict our behaviour, and sell us the products and services we rely upon. While this “surveillance capitalism has already raised the ire and concern of privacy and civil liberty advocates, the global pandemic is ushering in a far more ominous trend in sacrificing personal privacy, in the name of allowing governments to efficiently conduct contact tracing. This Orwellian transformation is taking place without any real public debate.

While a “Big Brother” dystopia might once have seemed reserved for authoritarian governments — such as China’s, which has used facial recognition technology and the monitoring of individuals’ digital footprints to control, surveil and pacify its Uyghur minorities in Xinjiang — liberal democratic governments are now also deploying digital technologies, such as contact-tracing apps, that are raising valid concerns about civil liberties.

The slippery slope toward making the apps mandatory is just a matter of time. After all, voluntary app download measures will render the app ineffective.

In an effort to get the spread and outbreak of COVID-19 under control, public health authorities and governments worldwide are looking to adopt modern and efficient means of contact tracing, a core disease control measure. The purpose of contact tracing is to find all those who came into contact with an infected person and to either test or isolate those contacts to prevent further spread of the disease. An analog process is labour intensive, both expensive and slow, requiring public health agents to conduct telephone interviews with all individuals who may have been in contact with an infected person; it is also prone to inaccuracy, if individuals cannot recall where they were or who they interacted with over a course of time.

Enter our ubiquitous smartphones, which hold data about our location and are often on our person outside of our homes. One of the most common ways governments deploy digital contact tracing is through a sanctioned app that users download. Many countries started their digital surveillance programs by making contact-tracing app downloads voluntary, noting that people could opt out of downloading them and that their use would be temporary to stem the spread of COVID-19.

To no surprise, a number of autocratic countries, such as China, Iran and Turkey, had made downloading the apps mandatory. While one would expect these manoeuvres by undemocratic polities, India, the world’s largest liberal democracy, has also effectively mandated that citizens download its contact-tracing app, Aarogya Setu, or risk losing their jobs or being arrested or fined. This app has already raised red flags, and India’s legal scholars argue that the app is unconstitutional. There is added concern that this is being deployed under Narendra Modi’s government, powered by an ultranationalist party that has backed cracking down on its once liberal and vibrant media sector for several years and on enforcing a draconian lockdown in Kashmir.

The slippery slope toward making the apps mandatory is just a matter of time. After all, voluntary app download measures will render the app ineffective. As Oxford’s Big Data Institute’s report noted, 80 percent of mobile phone users need to download the app to make it useful — a threshold difficult to achieve when using the app is voluntary. Indeed, Singapore was among the first of countries to try a voluntary download of its app, TraceTogether, but with such low uptake (just 29 percent) the app was rendered useless. Iceland’s Raknin C-19 app has the highest download rate among the voluntary approaches utilized globally, but was only able to get 38 percent of its population to install it.

Increasingly, global use of digital surveillance tools could be mandated on citizens to monitor people’s movements, and this should worry us all. What harm would there be in having our governments know our whereabouts? Surveillance measures can become opaque without independent oversight of an ombudsperson or privacy commissioner. Without adequate controls, they can become invasive, straying into tracking the movements of political activists, critical journalists and political opponents. Ultimately, these apps can become seductive tools that governments will want to keep well beyond the containment of COVID-19.

Consider the case of Moscow, where the mayor’s office has permitted residents to leave their homes, use the streets and pass police checkpoints during a city quarantine if they downloaded a scannable QR code pass onto their smartphones. At first, the mayor’s office noted this pass would be used to allow essential workers to show law enforcement officers that they had permission to break lockdown orders. The Moscow Times soon noted, however, that Putin’s political allies, journalists in friendly state-owned media and employees of rich business tycoons connected to the Kremlin were also being issued these QR passes. Similarly, Saudi Arabia’s Tawakkalna app is being used to authorize people to leave their homes during quarantine and curfews. The creation of different classes of those permitted to leave their homes and those who are not, based on political or loyalty-based factors, is a legitimate concern for civil liberties.

Moreover, questions about where and for how long data is being stored and whether it is being shared with other government agencies, such as law enforcement or intelligence services, need to be publicly debated in healthy liberal democracies.

Consider the case of Israel, a long-time exporter of sophisticated digital surveillance technology to Arab Gulf clients who use the technology to suppress their populations’ civil liberties and political activities. Israel has now allowed its internal security service to use smartphone location data to monitor the movement of citizens and to alert users of their risk of contact with an already infected person. Political activists who support Palestinian rights, those who opposed the autocratic tendencies of the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu, and others who question the mission creep of state authority are among those who fear that data being shared with intelligence services and law enforcement could be used to stifle and silence their opposition to government policies.

Vulnerable communities, who may have been targeted by law enforcement in the past, also fear digital surveillance tools will become permanent, as these tools are cheaper and more efficient in policing areas with restive populations or high crime rates. If outbreaks occur in poorer neighbourhoods, which are more likely to be densely populated, intra-generational and, hence, prone to virus spread, these already vulnerable communities may face additional discrimination, stigmatization or socio-psychological harm.

Vulnerable communities, who may have been targeted by law enforcement in the past, also fear digital surveillance tools will become permanent.

The technology and its applications are not perfect. What happens when the app generates false positives and false negatives? The elderly are the most vulnerable to the disease and their smartphone penetration is lower than the average consumer. How do we ensure that individuals will not use the self-reporting feature to harm others with false reports of infections, for example, a political rival or foreign agent using the app to spoil a political candidate’s rally? Disinformation and the weaponization of information for malicious political and economic gain need to be concerns for those who see a technological solution to the crisis we are in.

Moreover, as technologists note, what happens to all the data collected on citizens? How is data aggregated, stored, destroyed or anonymized? Cryptographers argue that the gold standard is to keep the data stored on the phones rather than send it to government servers. Making these apps open source and having the code scrutinized by technical experts is key. That said, contact-tracing apps are not created equal. More than 300 academics in computer science, privacy studies and cryptography have argued that GPS-enabled technologies are highly inaccurate and susceptible to privacy lapses, and that location data storage held on servers could compromise privacy. While not endorsing contact-tracing apps, they have called for use of Bluetooth-enabled apps. Yet, as of mid-May 2020, of the 47 contact-tracing apps deployed across the globe, 53 percent are GPS-based and only 15 percent are Bluetooth-based; 28 percent of apps utilize both modalities.

Digital contact tracing seems like a smart and advanced technique that could keep us all collectively safe, but a Big Brother world is already under way in states with autocratic leaders. The risk of mission creep in liberal democracies with rising populist tendencies, as in parts of Europe and the United States, is real and urgent. Those who want to defend civil liberties will need to get ready for a public battle, to convince people, who may think sacrificing a bit of liberty is worth being able to leave their homes, that the time to fight for privacy is now; otherwise, we will no longer recognize our societies in a few years’ time.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani has a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on international political economy and is a full professor and associate vice‑president, international at the University of Waterloo.

Essay Series

We are in the midst of fighting the first phase of the COVID-19 crisis, but it is already clear that the impacts will be manifold and enduring. It is not too early to reflect on the lasting impact that the outbreak is sure to have on global cooperation, globalization, faith in public action and in science, social cohesion, and the trade-off between civil liberties and personal privacy.