The Rise of Coronavirus Surveillance

Coronavirus is leading to expansions in surveillance around the world. This article discusses implications and what we can do to protect ourselves.


By Max Wilbert & Salonika

Fear is a powerful force. Fear is not just an emotion: it is a state of heightened physiological arousal. Fear lowers our immunity. Fear makes careful decision-making difficult.

Fear also makes us susceptible to suggestion, and this is exploitable.

In Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, the author (someone we have deep disagreements with, especially on the issue of “green” energy) writes that “in moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure—whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or, as the Bush administration would later show, a terrorist attack.”

Or a virus.

The Coronavirus Crisis and The Corporate State

There are now roughly 3 million confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide, and likely millions more as yet untested. Of those confirmed infected, 200,000 have died. Deaths are disproportionate among Black, Latino, indigenous, and poor people who are more likely to have health issues as a result of capitalism, colonization, and white supremacy.

It is a grave situation, although it is as yet unclear exactly how deadly this virus is. This publication has previously covered the importance of considering underlying health issues, such as exposure to high levels of air pollution, which complicate “cause of death” considerations and implicate industrial pollution and industrial fast food. But predictably, governments are waging a “war on coronavirus,” not a war on pollution or on McDonalds.

Coronavirus, after all, doesn’t make any “campaign contributions” (that’s what we call bribes in the United States).

The Rise of Surveillance and the Chinese Model

Coronavirus originated in China, and so has China set the model for how the world responds to this situation.

Public surveillance is China is not a new phenomenon. The Chinese government employs a variety of tools to control it’s 1.4 billion people, including the world’s largest and most powerful internet censorship and control system (“The Great Firewall of China”), an AI-powered facial recognition platform linked to a network of hundreds of millions of surveillance cameras, laws requiring official IDs for mundane activities, extensive financial and communications monitoring, and a mandatory “Social Credit” system that assigns a score to each citizen based on their regular activities.

One city alone, Chongqing, was reported to have 2.58 million government surveillance cameras in operation last year—thirty times more cameras than Washington D.C.

This data is used to, among other things, assess the “political loyalty” of residents.

From China to the World

Coronavirus provides justification for expansion of these activities. In Wuhan and across the country, China is using CCTV cameras and drones to enforce quarantine. As the lockdown in Wuhan was lifted, the government mandated that residents install an app called “Health Code” on their phones to track possible exposures to coronavirus.

Governments around the world are taking advantage of the crisis to expand surveillance and police powers. In Hungary, for example, the government has passed an unlimited emergency declaration allowing the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to rule by decree. Elsewhere, the expansions in state power have been less stark but no less concerning when it comes to civil liberties.

For example, twenty-three countries and counting have now adopted “contact tracing apps”—a nightmare for privacy and surveillance. Even the so-called “anonymized” contact tracing apps can be easily reconstructed, leaving detailed records of social relationships. In Hong Kong, authorities have mandated wristbands which alert police if a person has left their place of quarantine. In South Korea, data from credit card transactions, smartphone location tracking, and CCTV video surveillance is being used to generate a real-time map of possible vectors.

What is the Price of Safety?

The push for a stronger surveillance is often justified by as a means for saving lives. With people fearing for the lives of themselves and their loved ones, it is easier to find support for greater surveillance. The Tony Blair Institute, a neoliberal think tank in the UK, calls it a choice between three “undesirable outcomes:” an overwhelmed health system, economic shutdown, or increased surveillance.

But these are false dichotomies. Many health professionals advocate for protecting privacy and addressing the coronavirus using other approaches. With governments pushing for greater surveillance rather than establishing accessible healthcare systems and free testing and treatment, the public should be apprehensive. And opening the economy before the proper time is a fools gamble.

Community organizer Vince Emanuele reminds us, “For capitalists, economic recessions and depressions are the best of times. After all, they can buy up assets at bargain basement prices and further consolidate their power. Capitalists raked in record profits after the 2008 Financial Collapse, which turned out to be the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of this country, expanding and deepening existing wealth inequalities. The only reason capitalists want to reopen the economy is to avoid giving Americans the sort of social democratic programs that would be necessary to keep the country closed and everyone safe. They’re not worried about saving capitalism — they’re worried about giving you money, healthcare, and canceling your student loan payments. If Americans get a taste of the good life, good luck getting them to go back to their shitty jobs that provide less than a living wage, no benefits, and no future. Capitalists are not worried about saving capitalism. They’re worried about poor and working class people experiencing what it would be like to live in a decent society.”

9/11 and the Power of Fear

Once governments and police agencies have developed a new surveillance technology, there is no evidence they will give it up. The same goes for laws. To judge by history, there is no such thing as “temporary” expansions in surveillance. The surveillance system adopted during times of crisis are more likely to define the new normal long after the crisis has been averted.

“Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life,” writes Yuval Noah Harari. “That is the nature of emergencies. They fast-forward historical processes. Decisions that in normal times could take years of deliberation are passed in a matter of hours. Immature and even dangerous technologies are pressed into service, because the risks of doing nothing are bigger. Entire countries serve as guinea-pigs in large-scale social experiments.”

The Patriot Act, for example, was originally designed to be temporary, and is still in effect 20 years later. Every time it comes up for renewal, it passes by a wide margin. Israel still has surveillance laws—originally planned to be temporary—dating from the 1940’s.

The September 11th, 2001 attacks on the United States created a culture of fear that led directly into submission to state authority. This in turn led to the “War on Terror,” and as a result, the world has been subjected to expansions in surveillance, detention, and torture, and to the outbreak of wars in the Middle East which have destabilized the planet and killed well over a million people.

One expert called the current situation “9/11 on steroids.”

As some would see it, lack of privacy is a price they are willing to pay for increased security. They should be reminded that “privacy” isn’t an abstract value, it is a fundamental principle of political liberty. Without privacy, dissent can become literally unthinkable.

There are countless reasons we cannot trust states to keep our personal information safe, and only use it in case of emergency. Historically, even “liberal democracies” have not been able to meet these standards. As Snowden leaks illustrated, to provide states access to our personal information and expect them to respect our privacy is analogous to giving our car keys to a known car thief and expecting him to only use it in case of an emergency.

How to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus Surveillance

So what is to be done?

We advocate for revolutionary change to the economic and political system of the world. This requires the development of political consciousness, leadership, and organizations—work that we are engaged in right now. We welcome you to join us.

While we build revolutionary power, we must protect ourselves from existing state surveillance programs. Say no to #CoronavirusSurveillance. We can keep our communities safe without ceding all privacy to the state and corporate partnerships. We must demand privacy. This level of surveillance is absolutely unacceptable, and we must push back as hard as possible. Here are some basic actions you can take:

  1. Pressure your government to preserve privacy. Call, write letters, and meet with representatives. Support organizations fighting for civil liberties.
  2. Campaign against installation of surveillance cameras and other intrusive technologies.
  3. Refuse to install privacy-degrading applications, including official tracing apps as well as corporate applications like Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, etc.
  4. Use a “faraday bag” to store your cell phone when not in use to prevent contact tracing.
  5. Turn off GPS and Bluetooth whenever you are not using them.
  6. Protect your digital information by using privacy-respecting services like Signal, Session, Protonmail, and Tutanota for email and communication. Use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. Use Firefox instead of Google Chrome, and use add-ons like uBlock Origin and Privacy Badger.
  7. Consider using a VPN or Tor to protect your internet connection.

Salonika is an organizer at DGR South Asia based in Nepal. She believes that the needs of the natural world should trump the needs of the industrial civilization.

Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. He is a longtime member of Deep Green Resistance. Max is the author of two books: the forthcoming Bright Green Lies, and We Choose to Speak, a collection of essays released in 2018.

3 thoughts on “The Rise of Coronavirus Surveillance”

  1. The number of surveillance cameras in use in a Chinese city (2.58 million) was described as 31 times the number in use in Washington, D.C. — as if the number of cameras in China was supposed to shock us. What should be shocking is that there are 83,000 surveillance cameras in Washington, D.C.

    That says something about the difficulty of being a revolutionary in today’s society. In his book, “Fugitive Days,” Bill Ayers (who, as a leader of the Weather Underground, spent several years during the 1970s on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list) noted that he was often recognized on the street by acquaintances and supporters, but somehow avoided arrest for more than half a decade.

    That would be unthinkable today — which underscores DGR’s emphasis on underground activists remaining unknown.

    As for avoiding social network sites, that, too, cannot be overstated. I have a largely unused Facebook account (opened years ago to look up long lost acquaintances — of whom I found one). Facebook nonetheless recently demanded that I provide a photo of myself, so as to prove my identity. What do you suppose Facebook might do with that information?

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