Snapshot: The internet, social media, and smart devices put billions
of people into constant contact. This allows for the exchange of
personal information on a massive scale. There are positive sides
to surveillance: keeping children safe, tackling trafficking, and
responding to human-made and natural calamities. However, it has
also created a digital environment ripe for harmful surveillance,
restricted freedoms, and loss of privacy. Governments and
corporations clamp down on dissent, limit press freedom, and expose
human rights defenders to grave threats.
Key terms: surveillance, monitoring, privacy, censorship
The start of 2020 saw the onset of a global pandemic and, along with
it, a new era of digital surveillance and threats to privacy. The need for
a coordinated and widespread pandemic response provided a parallel
opportunity for dramatically-increased digital surveillance, data
collection, and loss of privacy. Our digital footprints became an even
more valuable resource.
Digital communication devices were at the heart of many countries’
pandemic measures. Governments rolled out contact tracing apps and
digital vaccine certificates. Passenger locator forms, and facial and
license plate recognition were used to trace and limit the movement of
people. These tools were used to enforce lockdowns, monitor quarantine
compliance, and incentivize people to get tested and vaccinated.
Rapid introduction of these digital measures prompted new ethical
challenges. For example, existing surveillance tools, like cameras used to
monitor neighbourhoods at risk of terrorist attacks, were instead used to
monitor pandemic rule compliance. In some countries, data from contact
tracing apps were shared with police and security forces.
The pandemic response is only one example of how digital communication
tools have been co-opted for surveillance. Digital surveillance includes
monitoring peoples’ online behaviour, collecting personal digital data,
transmitting sensitive information, using facial recognition, and deploying
artificial intelligence to identify patterns in the reams of digital data we
each generate every day.
China’s well-known private and government social credit systems are
an example of digital surveillance par excellence. The systems analyze all
kinds of regular behaviour and habits like shopping, buying train tickets,
and paying bills. The data, once crunched, yield a score of apparent
trustworthiness that is used to reward or penalize people accordingly.
Everything from access to healthcare, movement within China, finding
jobs, and getting good schools for your children is potentially impacted by
Surveillance and the harvesting of data through digital means deprive
people of privacy, negatively impacting both online and offline activities,
and can even be dangerous for many people around the world. For
marginalized and persecuted communities, surveillance is a new
and enormously powerful way to maintain social exclusion and the
vulnerability of some people and groups. Media monopolies and complicit
governments limit freedom of speech through censorship and surveillance
while allowing and even encouraging hate speech and disinformation.
Objectives to turn into questions:
y Have you experienced changes in surveillance and privacy since the
start of the pandemic?
y What, if any, surveillance is needed to ensure peace and health,
prevent conflict, and respond to natural disasters? Who would you
trust to be responsible for surveillance and handling data?
y What, if any, are legitimate uses of digital communication tools for
y How can civil society protect privacy and advocate for nonsurveillance, while safeguarding vulnerable people and groups?