When COVID-19 first broke out in the Chinese state of Wuhan, Xi Jinping’s government — already equipped with advanced surveillance infrastructure — responded in a rather unsurprising way: with more surveillance. Chinese authorities harnessed big data to deploy facial recognition systems that detect high temperatures in crowds, track population movement using smartphone data, and create new artificial intelligence models for identifying people wearing masks. The government has encouraged citizens to monitor neighbors and report those suspected of carrying the virus.
Just as unsurprisingly, Western governments and their allies — quick to resurrect Cold War conflicts — took Beijing’s aggressive response as an opportunity to score points against the Chinese state. Digital privacy pundits warned that Xi was using the pandemic to bolster his spying apparatus and slammed the Chinese government for operating nothing less than a dystopian surveillance state. In truth, with China’s repression of Xinjiang’s Uyghur population, the Chinese internet’s tireless censorship program, and the recently deployed “social credit system,” much of this criticism is well warranted.
But for now, China’s surveillance measures seem to have worked. The outbreak in Wuhan appears largely under control, with the government reporting no new local cases. And while the Chinese government has been roundly condemned for cracking down on COVID-19 whistleblowers, its use of big data to find and quarantine infected people has since been praised as a model for the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, the United States has emerged as the new epicenter of the pandemic, with upwards of 500,000 cases and no end in sight. While most states have issued “shelter-in-place” orders, authorities have no way of guaranteeing their advice is being heeded without the means to monitor people’s activity. US elites are fretting that the Chinese model might be proving superior, raising the possibility of a troubling dilemma: adopt Beijing’s draconian surveillance measures or let the virus run amok.
Yet the belief that surveillance is uniquely Chinese is naive at best and sinophobic at worst. While the word “surveillance” conjures up images of dystopian societies far removed from Western liberal democracies, governments around the world are just as willing to consort with profit-driven companies to boost domestic monitoring — and companies have displayed their own appetite for tracking workers.
In mid-March, the Washington Post reported that the US government was in talks with Facebook, Google, and other Silicon Valley companies about how geolocation information collected from smartphones could be used to map the spread of COVID-19 and determine if people were self-quarantining.
Of course, relying on profit-driven tech companies could lead us further down the slippery slope of eroding privacy protections. But it’s not just our immediate civil liberties that are at stake. By positioning itself as a public servant amid a pandemic, Silicon Valley could use the crisis to expand their control and jurisdiction over our digital livelihoods after the pandemic crisis. In the future, they could point to their service as cause to keep public oversight (or more) at bay: “If you regulate us, we won’t be able to protect the citizens of the world.”
The upshot could be yet another expansion in the surveillance infrastructure built after 9/11, which gave the government nearly complete control over our data under the guise of terrorism prevention and brought for-profit companies into an insidious marriage with the state. As Edward Snowden famously revealed in 2013, programs that rely on data collected by private firms are easily abused — and often, as in the case of the NSA Phone Program, completely ineffective at accomplishing their aims.
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 rockets around the world, companies are taking full advantage of their internal surveillance apparatuses. Amazon continues to monitor its warehouse workers, toiling under brutal conditions, to take advantage of the massive demand for the company’s delivery services. Bloomberg reported recently that businesses were panic-buying new surveillance software to ensure that work-from-home employees are in fact working.
Perhaps most disturbingly, Palantir — powered by Amazon’s cloud platform — is still supplying tracking technology to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose agents — undeterred by the pandemic — are arresting immigrants and holding them in unsanitary, enclosed spaces.
Are these the kinds of actors we want to emerge from the crisis with more power? Those who have already demonstrated they have more interest in profits than saving lives?
Chinese tech companies are behaving no differently. When the coronavirus outbreak sent the country into lockdown, tech employees who were already working for long hours were expected to put in additional time at home. Like their US counterparts, Chinese employers used whatever productivity-tracking tools they could to monitor workers and keep them from “slacking off.” Without any separation between work and life, China’s infamous “996” working schedule (9 AM to 9 PM, six days a week) turned into 24/7 standby.
The fulminations of latter-day Cold Warriors notwithstanding, private tech firms in both China and the United States have shown no compunction about aiding government surveillance or increasing intra-company monitoring. Many are in fact seizing the opportunity to extend surveillance in the name of public health. And if we’re not careful, these invasive measures could outlive the pandemic itself.
Given the severity of coronavirus, some might argue that implementing extreme measures that come at the cost of individual privacy is reasonable. And perhaps it’s true that in today’s world, when most of our technological infrastructure is in the hands of private firms, companies like Google could help slow the pandemic. But before charging ahead with mass surveillance, we should remember that these measures only push the balance of power toward those who already wield it.
After all, at its core, surveillance is about giving those with power the ability to track (and often discipline) those without it. And Google and Alibaba, with their panoptic views of their billions of users, are in the perfect position to take on the job.
Is there an alternative? One that seeks to slow the virus without impinging on democratic values?
While countless reports focus on the effectiveness of China’s top-down surveillance programs, a Buzzfeed reporter who bypassed official Chinese channels to investigate how the residents of Wuhan were coping during its peak found that “highly sophisticated networks of localized cooperation” were as crucial as any state-mandated measures. “It wasn’t just top-down measures that successfully slowed the infections in Wuhan, it was also bottom-up, dynamic organizing in emergent, hyperlocal groups.” Similar networks have also started to appear in the United States.
In these decentralized networks, data plays a critical role. But unlike panoptic surveillance measures, data is distributed and transparency is encouraged. Participants invent new systems on spreadsheets and other online tools, allowing people to safely check on each other while collectively setting the rules for how their data is governed. Collective safety, not punitive spying, is the ethos.
It’s possible that these technologically abetted initiatives will also outlive this moment of crisis and become the site for lasting mutual support — a site that not only can help us overcome the alienation that we experience as workers every day but also serve as the foundation for a radically different approach to building technology.
In a different world, where data was individually owned and democratically governed, technology could provide relief in a time of crisis — not to monitor and discipline, but to enhance our most basic instincts to support each other. And it’s that future which threatens autocrats everywhere, whether in Beijing or Washington or Silicon Valley.