Coronavirus and the Surveillance State

Coronavirus and the Surveillance State

The evolution of information technologies will beckon us to expand the powers of governments, especially when we believe they would serve the common good, like during a pandemic. A bit of reflection should give us pause.

A mock-up of the Australian government's contact-tracing app, COVIDSafe (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

This essay is part of a special section on the pandemic in the Summer 2020 issue.

The coronavirus pandemic is challenging our ideas about the fundamental responsibilities of government and the proper limits of government demands on the governed.

These issues are particularly pressing when it comes to government surveillance. How far should government agencies and representatives go to monitor the well-being of individual Americans and, more importantly, to reach out with corrective action, when things go wrong? To answer these questions we have to go far beyond policies for health and illness, and grapple anew with tensions between government efforts to protect people (and administer justice) and the perils of oppressive overreach.

Classic conservative doctrines stress limitation of government powers as the best safeguard for liberty. Americans who have resisted restrictions on public socializing in restaurants and other gathering places and orders to close business show that this doctrine still resonates today.

Yet changing technologies upend established compromises on these matters and force us to confront possibilities that once seemed fantastical. In the last few years, for example, political campaigns have turned to techniques like geofencing, which enable strategists to scan crowds and identify their members—without the latter’s knowledge—by the signals emitted by their cell phones. This information makes it possible to trace the presence of those targets in future public venues. Law enforcement agencies at many levels have wide recourse to related technologies, such as Stingray, that track the movements of persons of interest using the signals between the targets’ phones and the nearest towers. The legal status of these activities is unclear, and court orders are rarely sought for them. Many of these technologies have been developed not by government agencies but by advertising and marketing entrepreneurs.

Thus far use of these capabilities in the United States has largely been scattered across different private-sector and government organizations, rather than concentrated in any single institution. By contrast, mainland China has openly deployed its considerable resources to track the movements of virtually every member of its population. During the pandemic, citizens were classified by three color codes—green, yellow, and red—based on the history of their movements. These codes were available via each person’s cell phone, which must be used for crucial transactions. When seeking access to high-speed rail service or bus connections, or entering other public spaces likely to be crowded, everyone expected to have their code checked. Those coded red or yellow were assumed to have had close contact with a confirmed coronavirus carrier; the authorities would block holders of these phones from further travel and possibly assign them enforced quarantine. Those lucky enough to show a green classification faced few restrictions. An additional feature of the system enables the authorities to drill down into the detail of the person’s traveling history should suspicions remain. Citizens revealed to have traveled recently to Hubei province, whose capital is Wuhan, risked further investigation as possible virus carriers.

Many Americans, we suspect, would consider any such program tantamount to open embrace of totalitarianism. Yet the results achieved by this high-tech full-court press have greater potential for success in reducing the spread of the virus than measures adopted thus far in the United States. At this moment, however, this country lacks the technology and systematic population registration (not to mention the public support) to pursue any such effort.

That is changing. The United States will soon have all the elements needed to create a system that could track the entire population in real time. Such a comprehensive system would presumably incorporate much smaller technological tracking systems like those mentioned above, along with systems already in use in supermarkets to follow consumers’ product choices and those employed to record travelers’ movements by scheduled air flights, trains, and automated toll systems on highways, bridges, and the like.

Such a comprehensive project could hardly be rolled out in time to deal with COVID-19. But a concerted effort to create a system of this kind could be mobilized in preparation for the next national emergency—which might not be a health emergency. The new system would presumably absorb and complete already-existing efforts by law enforcement agencies to develop comprehensive listings of Americans’ DNA profiles, voiceprints, faceprints, vehicle license plates, and so on—all useful, along with cell phone signals, internet addresses, and other increasingly available personal data, for spotting and tracking persons of interest.

Such a system could promise control over all sorts of wrongdoing. If the authorities could indeed determine where everyone was at any given moment, many crimes would be open-and-shut cases. Missing persons would be a thing of the past. Freedom from worry over dangers of crime or other misbehavior could build significant popular support for such capabilities. But is the United States prepared to live with a system endowed with these powers? Who would be trusted to operate it? What forms of behavior would it be mandated to control?

Even if such a formidable system were reserved for major emergencies, who would determine what situations warrant its use? Should they include kidnappings, threats of rape, child neglect, or a failure to report taxable income?

The internet has changed our lives in countless ways over the past four decades. It would be absurd to imagine that its role over the next forty years will be any less transformative. The evolution of information technologies will beckon us to expand the powers of governments, especially when we believe they would serve the common good, like during a pandemic.

A bit of reflection should give pause. We have a brief moment, by historical standards, to compose our minds on these matters, before some subsequent crisis forces the issue.


James B. Rule has been a member of the Dissent editorial board since 1983. This essay is developed from his forthcoming book, Taking Privacy Seriously.

Han Cheng is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, finishing a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature and Global Studies.


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