Commentary

Don't Gobble Up Gov Surveillance Just Because of COVID-19

By Chris Talgo | April 13, 2020 | 11:03am EDT
The American flag swirls in the wind. (Photo credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
The American flag swirls in the wind. (Photo credit: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

During the 2008 Economic Crisis, Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s then-chief of staff infamously said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that [is] it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” 

Twelve years later, as the COVID-19 crisis has turned our world upside down, governments across the globe are considering and/or doing something they certainly could not do before: implement mass surveillance programs to track COVID-19 patients.

As if they have taken a page straight from Stalin’s surveillance playbook, governments that have previously protected privacy and civil liberties are doing abrupt about-faces by giving in to the siren call of mass surveillance under the auspice of “protecting public health.”

Although you may expect this type of government surveillance in places such as China, would you believe that Western democracies are also already or on the verge of implementing similar measures?

For instance, according to a recent New York Times article, “In South Korea, government agencies are harnessing surveillance-camera footage, smartphone location data and credit card purchase records to help trace the recent movements of coronavirus patients and establish virus transmission chains.” Yikes!

Not to be outdone, “In Lombardy, Italy, the authorities are analyzing location data transmitted by citizens’ mobile phones to determine how many people are obeying a government lockdown order and the typical distances they move every day. About 40 percent are moving around 'too much,' an official recently said.” How scary is that?

And finally, “In Israel, the country’s internal security agency is poised to start using a cache of mobile phone location data — originally intended for counterterrorism operations — to try to pinpoint citizens who may have been exposed to the virus.” Double yikes!

At this point, you may be thinking "so what? Something like the policies described above would never occur in the United States." Well, never say never.

According to a recent Politico article, “White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s task force has reached out to a range of health technology companies about creating a national coronavirus surveillance system to give the government a near real-time view of where patients are seeking treatment and for what, and whether hospitals can accommodate them, according to four people with knowledge of the discussions.”

As if that is not worrisome enough, we should also keep in mind that national crises are all-too-often used as the means to justify government programs that would ordinarily never see the light of day.

For example, before Sept. 11, 2001, no American in their right mind would have envisioned the U.S. government enacting the massive surveillance apparatus we have now come to accept. In other words, before 9/11, policies such as the PATRIOT Act would have been inconceivable. Yet, today, in order to protect “national security,” the PATRIOT Act, and several other measures have been put in place with no sign of them going away anytime soon.

As Americans, it is our duty to remain vigilant about maintaining our privacy rights and ensuring our civil liberties are protected at all costs. We should be skeptical when a federal task force suggests it is necessary to track citizens’ movements in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

Moreover, we should reject government surveillance because it is simply anti-American.

Benjamin Franklin said, “We’ve given you a republic, if you can keep it.” The Founding Fathers also gave us, via the Constitution (and Bill of Rights), civil liberties and privacy rights. However, it is up to us to keep them.

Chris Talgo (ctalgo@heartland.org) is an editor at The Heartland Institute.

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