Opinion

War rhetoric surrounds COVID surveillance

Deployments of technology to help tackle the coronavirus are taking hold around the world, from London to Moscow, from Singapore to Seoul, from New Delhi to Beijing. Governments and companies, separately and cooperatively, are offering digital approaches to unprecedented times. Yet the design, use, and post-pandemic sunsetting of these technologies aren’t the only critical points of discussion.

Important as well is the language used to frame these surveillance measures — which in many countries is rhetoric of war.

This may seem entirely benign, and perhaps it’s intended that way, a mere articulation of the crisis’ unprecedented speed and scale. But governments framing COVID-19 responses in the language of war risks citizens blindly accepting pandemic surveillance as necessity—and it obscures important questions about public health data collection in particular.

Let’s begin across the Atlantic. At the podium of his Jerusalem office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in March that the government was deploying counterterrorism surveillance tools against coronavirus carriers. Netanyahu cited a go-ahead from Israel’s Justice Ministry to use these measures without consent — specifically, retrieval of cellular metadata on citizens—to contain the outbreak.

Coupled right alongside this announcement? Talk of the coronavirus as a “war” facing society. “We are at war with an enemy: the coronavirus,” Netanyahu said. He then branded COVID-19 an “invisible enemy that must be located.”

This rhetoric is unlikely a coincidence. “Security requirements have always been a strong argument which may easily trump other considerations,” Limor Shmerling Magazanik, the managing director of the Israel Tech Policy Institute, told me. “The dominance of the Defense Ministry and the defense agencies is felt in budget debates annually, in the influence on market development in industry and high-tech sectors.” While privacy was raised during internal government debate on COVID-19 surveillance, she added, this rhetoric of war is worth contemplating “in an instance that involves extreme risks to civil liberties.”

Netanyahu certainly painted a portrait of necessity: “In all my years as prime minister, I have avoided using these means among the civilian public,” he said, “but there is no choice.”

Israel isn’t the only country invoking war language as the state ramps up surveillance. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is widely employing digital surveillance to track those violating quarantine, likened containing the pandemic to fighting medieval invasions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (whose government is also upping surveillance) called the country’s lockdown measures part of waging “war against coronavirus.” “It is a battle of life and death,” he said, “and we have to win it.”

In the United States, similar proclamations are plentiful. The phrase “all-out war” in particular appears to be the government line: President Trump said as much in a White House briefing last month; the same day, a U.S. military commander echoed the “all-out war” verbiage. Trump had made other war-metaphor comments multiple other times in April and March as well. This all took place as private companies introduce contact tracing apps and as the US government considers its own surveillance measures.

Deeming this rhetoric “surprising” would be a far cry from the truth. All too familiar to Americans are the numerous public crises that are also, apparently, wars: the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on poverty, the war on science. Technology policy has itself been warped by an overuse of misleading Cold War analogies.

But it’s worth asking what happens when language of national security necessity enters public conversation about surveillance in the middle of a pandemic.

Thinking in terms of armed conflict skews the conversation about who should determine the surveillance’s potential effectiveness in containing the virus. Battlefield imagery might suggest the military. Big Tech’s eagerness to act might suggest technologists without infectious disease expertise. Yet the real answer in a pandemic should be doctors (and that’s medical doctors who understand pandemics, not just anyone with a doctorate).

Such framing also obscures questions about what may or may not be different about surveillance for public health purposes compared to, say, surveillance for purposes of counterterrorism. For instance, it’s possible — given the right privacy protections and oversight — that citizens may be more willing to have their data used by the government to contain a pandemic than to stop a crime. It’s also possible citizens are more concerned about use of their health data, especially when involving private companies like Google who already hoard health information.

There are additional differences between data collection for public health purposes and surveillance in an armed conflict. It’s not happening on a literal battlefield. It should be focused on citizens within one’s country. And its effectiveness is arguably helped by transparency, not secrecy.

Blurring these lines is part of why wartime framings can precipitate paradigms of “security versus X”—often false dichotomies with dangerous effects. Stacey Gray, senior counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, articulated this fact in recently submitted answers to a Senate hearing on big data and pandemic containment.

“Privacy versus effectiveness of data-based solutions against the spread of COVID-19 is a false trade-off,” she wrote. “Thoughtful, sophisticated solutions can provide effective solutions that also protect personal data.” Articulations of an app’s purpose and design are imperative for judging these characteristics of effectiveness and privacy protection—further grounds to not hastily launch surveillance programs.

And if Washington does roll out its own surveillance “solutions” — in addition to private-sector efforts like the recent Apple-Google partnership — does invoking language of war make it more likely the American public accepts government surveillance measures uncritically, while eschewing questions of false paradigms? Quite possibly.

This would be a problem because there are many factors that public dialogue shouldn’t just blow past: legislative oversight like executive branch reporting to Congress; judicial oversight like reviewing government requests for health data; transparency requirements like clearly communicating data collection with the American people; “sunset provisions” that curtail the surveillance after a given amount of time. Policymakers might even contemplate setting up an external privacy advisory board.

Technology could help contain the pandemic. Yet expanding government surveillance in a crisis, particularly in cooperation with a relatively unregulated private sector, also prompts important questions. As citizens worldwide scrutinize expanding surveillance measures like contact tracing phone apps and facial recognition, and witness more broadly the creeping expansion of state authorities, we should scrutinize the rhetoric of war used to frame our thinking as well.

Justin Sherman is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.

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