• The London Financial

Will the Contentious Use of Technology During COVID Times Become Standard Practice?

Updated: Mar 12

By Sharif Fatourehchi & Suhani Thandi, Analysts at Unicast Entertainment

The balance between civilian's rights to privacy and the means necessary for the effective provision of security by the state has been a treacherous matter for policymakers. To what extent should the state be authorized to curtail values of civil liberties when it deems necessary? Matters like such are highlighted during times of crisis where the state needs to act swiftly, or there could be grave repercussions.

There is no debate that COVID-19, with its ramifications extending even further than health, could be classified as a crisis for most sovereign states around the world. Surpassing the 1-year mark of living in a world ridden with the virus, countries have developed technologies to control the spread, especially for contact-tracing purposes. Many governments, however, have been hesitant to implement such technologies as they are concerned about the backlash they may face from the public. One of the public's greatest fears is that once the state extends its reach on surveillance and control, how could they be assured it will not become standard practice and will be revoked once this crisis is over.

We have witnessed these fears turn to reality in the past. A cataclysmic event such as the infamous 9/11 attacks has had massive global implications. Following the aftermath of terrorist activity reaching American soil, the US government, through congress, took swift action to establish legislation referred to as the Patriot Act. This piece of legislation, introduced during a moment of crisis, expanded the state's limit on surveillance of civilians for the detection and deterrence of terrorist activity. At the time, there were few objections to the Act, both from politicians and civilians alike. However, since then, there have been shifts in public opinion, with great debates arising on the constitutional validity of the Act and the extent to which the government has curtailed civilian's rights to privacy. Now the intricate details and consequences of the Act is not the focus of this piece; we'd like to focus more on its longevity and how, to this day, some provisions are still withstanding. The Act did have a "sunset" clause that was due to expire in 2005. However, many of its provisions were extended under the Bush administration, and further action was taken by succeeding administrations. An Act that was established to accommodate for a crisis has slowly evolved into standard practice.

As Harriet Green, former CEO of IBM Asia Pacific, mentions in her interview with Unicast Entertainment, several countries have been employing technologies for controlling the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Singapore has effectively implemented a contact tracing program through a smartphone application that gives the government access to people's locations. When this program was initially executed, citizens were reassured that the data would only be used for tracking the virus. However, this original stance has since changed. Parliament was told that the data might also be used for criminal investigations, which has sparked fear of the loss of privacy among residents. During crises such as the current pandemic, people are more cooperative with government agencies vis-a-vis, granting them access to information, but if the systems put in place during this time continue to run afterwards, governments could face severe backlash. This is already seen in Singapore as several users of the contact tracing app have ceased their usage after the announcement of its use in criminal investigations. While a large number of people still trust the app with their identification data, it would be beneficial to the government to be transparent about the intentions and purposes of this program and other technologies used in the battle against COVID-19. If the current trend of increasing mistrust continues, these programs' purpose may be negated, and the climb to the end of the pandemic may become steeper.

Examples such as the beforementioned build on the public's mistrust in the state's overreach into their private lives, and fears of these practices create a precedent that might stay for years to come. As a result, many governments face difficulties implementing, what they believe to be, necessary measures for combating the spread of this virus. Now the roots of these fears can be traced back to similar instances in the past, such as the United State's Patriot Act or a growing fearfulness of the world moving towards an Orwellian dystopia controlled by a "Big Brother" totalitarian. Singapore has been accustomed to a rather draconian rule; however, their civilians have expressed their discontent with current government action. There exists a distinct question though, if the technology is available, do we have a moral obligation to do what it takes to minimize the harm done? Even if it is at the cost of our privacy? Until this question can be appropriately answered, we will continue to see debates as such arise both now and in the future.

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