By Peder Heiberg Sverdrup
The pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic caused states to embrace digital tools of surveillance at an alarming speed this year. Although monitoring apps such as the NHS Covid-19 App provide a quick fix to a temporary problem, the rushed outsourcing of sensitive personal information to private companies normalises the contingent relationship between public health and individual privacy.
The over-technological solution is the result of an uncritical and at times utopian view of private enterprise as the solution to larger socio-economic issues. As argued in Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the intensification of monitoring results in the entrenchment of surveillance for both governments and private enterprises. The German government’s move from a centralised to a decentralised tracking system delivered by Apple and Google show how the increased influence of technology companies shapes public policy measures.
What has become crystal clear in 2020 is that acceptance for exceptional measures and enhanced digital surveillance is drastically higher than anticipated. The state of exception as rationale for the suspension and undermining of democratic principles and rights is not a new phenomenon. However, the complete absence of a debate on the legitimacy, trustworthiness, or ethicality of these new surveillance measures demonstrates a chilling fact about contemporary life. When things are going 100 km/hr, the media and the political establishment are powerlessly asleep at the wheel.
One reference point is the passing of the PATRIOT Act in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001. However, the last 20 years have provided tools of surveillance way beyond the imagination of the policymakers at the beginning of the millennium. Consequently, we have no framework of how to deal with the present reality. This digital terra incognita is not uniform, as some countries are much more drastic in their monitoring of its population. For example, South Korean authorities posted detailed location histories of each citizen who tested positive, revealing the grocery stores, churches, and massage parlours they frequented.
Although not uniform, the trend toward increased surveillance is undeniable. The tools of surveillance have not only been popularised in both liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes, they have gotten the unattainable “proof of concept” needed to usher in a new age of digital power. In fighting to save one form of life, the new normal of surveillance has killed another.