State surveillance in the post-pandemic world

Covid-19 at its apotheosis has certainly put the world into a dire strait. It has drawn the global society into an acrimonious situation with significant disruption seen on the governance, economy, and personal lives.  And, it can be well presumed that the repercussions of the pandemic will be felt around the world in wide spectrum of areas in times to come. The post-traumatic distress is likely to remain vivid among the societies, civil organizations, and governments at least until the rest of the decade. In the meantime, the Covid-19 is likely to dominate the concerns of mass-media and general conversations alike.

Amid the longevity of the fear and distress following the aftermath of the COVID-19, what happens with the emergency measures undertaken by the government to restrain and curtail the spread of the virus remains an important question. Especially, when the answer to it determines the fate of the global democracy and civil liberty at large. Until then, the adverse chance of hastened emergency measures to outlast the crisis and convert into a permanent fixture leaves the pro-democratic and liberal institutions nervous.

One of such emergency measures hastened by certain Governments during the wake of the Covid-19 is the advancement of state-surveillance of the common people over the pretext of retrieving mass health information of the citizen in order to assess the pandemic situation, expediting contact tracing of the infected, enforcing lockdown and mass civil guidance deemed necessary amongst others. While the idea to advance mass surveillance by the State has certainly met popular resentment and denial in some continents, it has definitely witnessed some progress among the autocratic and democratic governments alike. In fact, the tool of state-surveillance previously limited to relatively autocratic regimes have now found its acceptance among democratic governments that had so far rejected it. Besides, this episode of emergency has now even allowed biometric surveillance apart from behavioral surveillance of the people. As such, this opportunistic advancement to biometric surveillance in the name of tracking medical condition of the mass is likely to be exploited in manipulating citizen choices by politicians and governments in future whilst big data on trend of human emotions and impulses are maintained. Even worse, the biometric data of common people can be exploited in horrendous ways by the leaders of undemocratic countries. Alas, the current pandemic also threatens to unleash the watershed of state surveillance at substantial cost of privacy and liberty around the globe.    

It is undoubtedly true that the overwhelming contagion of the Covid-19 has certainly forced people to acquiesce to the idea of choosing health over liberty and privacy, at least for the time being. Even though, whether health and liberty were ever at a trade-off is a matter of serious debate at its own footing. However, now that the choices have been made at the expense of liberty, civil societies and non-state actors need to be especially vigilant in closely monitoring how the short-term emergency decrees unfolds as the world exits from the crisis situation. And, in this particular case of advancement of state-surveillance also at biometric level, civil societies should make sure that technology is gradually deployed to empower citizens than to increase state control over them. Instead of State having exclusive access of citizen behavior and their biometric patterns, citizens should be enabled to securely monitor their own data in order to help them make informed personal choices and decisions autonomously for the collective and individual benefit. Most importantly, such data empowered citizen action should also be the global norm when tackling the pandemic situations in future. In fact, such actions may more effectively secure civil health, liberty, and autonomy. 

Prience Shrestha

Prience works in the research department at Samriddhi Foundation. And, he attempts to specialize in the field of Development Economics


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