The risks of teaming up with Big Brother to protect health

If you feel like you are being watched in China, be it at the train station or the airport, the shopping centre or the restaurant, the bank or the university, you are not necessarily being paranoid. China is headed towards an Orwellian dystopia. For decades, it had to satisfy the inherent security obsession of any dictatorship with in-person surveillance methods, but technological development now provides it with the means to keep a close watch over its 1.4 billion inhabitants. This arsenal of surveillance technology has proved indispensable in the war against coronavirus, not only in China but also in Asian countries with democratic forms of government. Their success (low death toll, according to official figures) has fuelled debate about how much technological surveillance is acceptable in the name of health.

China’s budget for internal security reached US$197 billion (around €179 billion) in 2017. But, more than the bare number, comparison with the country’s military budget gives us a better indication of how much importance Beijing attaches to it. Spending on internal security exceeded defence spending for the first time in 2010 and the gap has continued to widen ever since. The amount dedicated to internal security grew by 17.6 per cent in 2016 and 12.4 per cent in 2017, in contrast to the single-digit increases (7.6 per cent and 7.1 per cent for the same years) in that spent on defence. Today, it exceeds military spending by 20 per cent.

Its 350 million cameras, one for every four inhabitants, make China a huge ‘Big Brother’ set. Eight of the world’s ten cities with the highest density of surveillance cameras are Chinese. They can identify people using face, voice and gait recognition.

Added to this are the cyber police trawling social media. And then there are people’s buying habits. Without opening your wallet, you can pay the rent, eat at a street stall or a fancy restaurant, take a taxi or rent a bicycle, buy a couple of bananas or a television. Beijing is not an innocent bystander in the success of the phone payment system, which stimulates domestic consumption and allows it to track its citizens.

It was against this backdrop that news emerged from Wuhan about a strange kind of pneumonia. China’s president, Xi Jinping, said “the victory against the virus cannot be achieved without the support of science and technology” and the ministry in charge called for help from the private sector within days.

Not surprisingly, companies jumped at the opportunity. SenseTime, one of the most valuable artificial intelligence startups in the world, has designed algorithms that focus on the eyes and the top of the nose to be able to identify people wearing masks. Infrared devices from Zhejiang Dahua Technology Co read temperatures with a margin of error of just 0.3 degrees. Cameras deployed in Beijing can identify up to 15 people per second at a distance of five metres from the device. If the camera detects an abnormal temperature, it sends a warning to the authorities that a second reading is required. The movement data from telephone companies allows citizens to be colour coded: green means you are free to move around on public transport and enter buildings; yellow means you have been in a relative risk area and have to go into quarantine for a week; and red means you have been in a high-risk area and have to go into quarantine for 14 days, or face legal consequences. Restrictions are closely monitored by neighbourhood officials and committees. China Unicom and China Telecom, the country’s main telephone companies, offer similar services. Big data is on the front line of the battle against coronavirus.

In China, there is no debate over where to draw the line between the right to privacy and security. Technological surveillance is seen as beneficial, or harmless, in the worst-case scenario, and those who oppose it are deemed suspect “because they must have something to hide”.

GPS tracking for quarantine control in Taiwan

Tight surveillance based on technological tools has also been central to the fight against coronavirus in democratic countries such as Taiwan or South Korea, which have received international praise for their success in containing the virus.

On what China calls the ‘rebel island’, the operations have been led by the National Health Command Centre, a body set up in 2003 in the wake of the SARS epidemic that collects, sorts and sends data to the authorities. Taiwan has centralised ministerial records to identify potential COVID-19 cases and supervises quarantines through mobile phone GPS data. The police are alerted if the phone leaves the boundaries of the home or is switched off. Agents call several times a day to check that the individual has not gone for a walk, having left the mobile phone at home.

Milo Hsieh, a student who returned from the United States in March, is proof of its effectiveness. His phone battery died while he was sleeping and, within minutes of him not picking up the police’s calls and messages, two officers were banging at his door. This widely mediatised incident led to a short-lived uproar among a minority of people, in a country whose identity is built on distancing itself from China.

“There hasn’t been a strong reaction to the surveillance measures used to combat COVID-19 to date, given the high public approval of the government’s handling of the crisis. But civil society groups such as those that took part in the Sunflower Movement – student protests in 2014 against what was seen as the previous government’s excessive rapprochement with China – and parties that formed out of the movement are likely to be among those who take action if government surveillance of private citizens continues once the crisis passes,” says activist Brian Hioe, one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering youth culture and politics in Taiwan.

The Taiwanese government postponed the roll-out of the new electronic identity card on 27 April, saying that the coronavirus pandemic had obstructed the imports of the equipment and technology required. The new eID card, promoted as a way of simplifying administrative procedures for Taiwan’s citizens, had generated criticism from civil society groups such as the Taiwan Association for Human Rights or the Judicial Reform Foundation and political formations such as the New Power Party. The new system, says Hioe, intends to “centralise information databases regarding medical care, insurance, education, commerce, and government administration in a way that is dangerous”.

A wave of COVID-related homophobia in South Korea

South Korea’s massive testing drive allowed it to identify even asymptomatic cases. When its hospitals were at saturation point, people were monitored with mobile phone applications and constant calls while waiting at home for a bed to come free. On 27 April, 39,740 people, 95 per cent of whom had returned from abroad, were in forced quarantine. After detecting 286 furtive escapes, the government gave offenders the choice between wearing the tracking wristbands already in use in Hong Kong or completing the quarantine in state facilities. Seoul, to counter the complaints of human rights organisations, said that the wristbands were a way of giving offenders a second chance. A survey revealed that 77.8 per cent of South Koreans supported the imposition of the wristband and only 16.5 per cent opposed it.

The other key to South Korea’s success is the change in its disclosure policy developed during the MERS epidemic, which caused 36 deaths in the country in 2015. Seoul had initially refused to identify the hospitals that were treating those infected but had to rectify this approach to put an end to the speculation on social media. Under the new legislation since passed, the authorities can now collect private information on infected persons or suspected cases during epidemics without the need for judicial approval to share it, to satisfy “the public’s right to know”.

Mobile phone tracking (the location of users can be tracked at any time given that all those contracting mobile phone services are required to provide their real name and ID), recordings from the eight million CCTV cameras (one for every six inhabitants), transaction records (it is the country with the lowest percentage of cash transactions in the world) and immigration data all make it possible to trace the movements of an infected person within ten minutes. Text messages are sent out so that people can check whether they have come into contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. The information provided includes gender, age, approximate address and job title, so finding the name is not difficult. Visits to ‘love hotels’ or LGBTI venues put some of those diagnosed in an awkward position.

The threats faced culminated when a cluster was detected in the LGBTI community that triggered a homophobic campaign in a country dominated by traditional morals. A 29-year-old man tested positive after visiting five clubs in the Itaewon district of Seoul and a few days later 86 infections were confirmed, mostly amongst the clubs’ patrons.

The requirement to identify oneself when entering a bar had allowed the government to draw up a list of 5,000 people but only 2,000 could be contacted as the rest either ignored the calls or had given a wrong number. This is one instance where a strong conflict emerged between public health considerations and the right to privacy. The mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon insisted those coming forward for testing would not have to reveal their sexual identity, but also gave a clear reminder of the fines in place and that people could be identified through the venue’s surveillance cameras and records of their cashless transactions.

Those who had been to the clubs risked being forcibly outed to family, friends and colleagues by a positive diagnosis, with potentially devastating consequences at a time when the community was been blamed by the conservative media and on social media for spreading the virus throughout the country.

Queer Action Against COVID-19, a platform of 20 organisations that monitor respect for human rights, is calling for more dialogue and agreements on what information can be disclosed without committing rights violations.

“The government says that the information does not allow individuals to be identified, in line with the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission, but some local governments arbitrarily interpret the information,” says activist Changgu. “Some use it to identify a person’s address or nationality. Since human rights violations continue to occur and we do not know how this personal information might be used, it is time to ensure that its use is monitored,” he adds. The system, he says, has to be changed.

Few, however, take issue with the methods. A survey conducted in March by Seoul National University’s School of Public Health revealed that 78 per cent of people agreed to relax human rights protections to strengthen the fight against coronavirus. And the landslide victory of Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party in the 15 April election, in which it won 180 of the 300 seats, was interpreted as a reward for its handling of the crisis.

New reasons to prolong digital surveillance once the pandemic is over?

The West has already swallowed the mass lockdowns deemed unacceptably authoritarian a few months ago, when China first imposed them. Resistance to digital monitoring remains strong, however, whereas in Asia it is seen as an acceptable price to pay in the name of collective health, and one that avoids measures that are objectively or arguably more detrimental to individual freedoms and the economy, such as very long lockdowns.

Intrusive surveillance in democracies such as Taiwan or South Korea is accepted based on its effectiveness, the trust people place in their governments and the promise that it will end when the crisis ends. Human rights organisations, however, warn that the coronavirus emergency may go on for years and that we should be wary of the controlling instincts of any authority.

There is, indeed, a risk that governments will get used to digital surveillance and be tempted to seek new reasons to prolong its use once the pandemic is over, warns Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “For this reason, it is critical to build in protections now for the right to privacy, with clear limits on what can be collected and disclosed, regular and timely re-authorisation requirements to determine whether extending these powers is justified, and rock solid final expiration requirements for these powers,” he says. The mark is already being overstepped, he adds. “So far, too many governments are still skewing the balance away from protecting the right to privacy and towards whatever governments deem justified in their COVID-19 response.”

“For at least decades we have known that people will sacrifice freedom for the sake of security,” says historian Peter Kuznick from the American University in Washington DC. “Under normal circumstances, this is a flaw in human nature. But, perhaps, under the current circumstances, it is more understandable and acceptable. Fear has always been a great motivator – one that despots have used to manipulate populations. Most Americans will accept somewhat greater surveillance if it facilitates halting the spread of the pandemic. Edward Snowden exposed the shocking extent of the surveillance already being exercised and for more malign purposes. That was a wake-up call. Many people are now aware of the dangers of excessive and arbitrary surveillance and will not tolerate it.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.