Now that COVID-19 has brought about new public enforcement policies, a dystopian world where government agencies watch our every move may not be as far in the future as we might think. With the intent of observing crowd activities in public places (and private ones as well), law enforcement and health authorities have begun to utilize drones and other monitoring technologies ostensibly to forecast or prevent possible coronavirus outbreaks. These surveillance tools have proven extremely effective as “infectious disease tracking” technology, but many people are beginning to fear we must now sacrifice coveted privacy in exchange for safety.
Various applications for the technologies focus predominantly on contact tracing, including the monitoring of safe social distancing or the detection of an individual’s fever through thermal imaging. Other more general uses of drone technology involve strategic deliveries where exposure may be risky. Drone couriers now deliver pharmaceuticals to the sick, personal protection equipment to the front line, or emergency supplies to COVID-19 ravaged environments. Although these applications may sound practical and noble, local, state, and federal agencies have moved beyond mere COVID-related usage and have begun to exploit the pandemic in an effort to invade other areas of our life and privacy.
Surveillance drones have been in use by various agencies and police departments to monitor traffic congestion, track missing persons, assist in rescue operations, and to assess civil unrest during street protests or demonstrations. The additional features of thermal imaging and facial recognition, each still in their infancy stages of development, add yet another invasive layer to the intrusion of government surveillance into the personal lives of its citizenry.
According to the Constitutional Project, there are already an estimated 30 million security cameras in the United States, and most are easily accessible and conveniently hackable through back-door internet protocols. Now, with the ubiquitous application of GPS embedded in our personal technologies, and combined with the need to track a novel pandemic, Big Brother’s eye in the sky could significantly intensify law enforcement’s paranoid vigilance and its thirst for control over the masses.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU, Connecticut, suggests, “The biggest red flag for the ACLU is when the use of technology [leads] to arrest.” Again, such measures are by no means an apparition of some distant and imaginary Orwellian future. They have already become a part of our everyday life. For years, police have been using remote cameras to write citations against traffic violators. In every city in America, law enforcement has utilized strategic camera placement with the express purpose of capturing damning footage intended to seal a suspect’s fate in the courtroom.
Laws that limit surveillance are constantly under attack, yet lawmakers in Congress routinely push the envelope against Fourth Amendment rights and privacy. Today, and at every level of the justice system, search, seizure, and surveillance that circumvent constitutional restrictions have become commonplace.
Unfortunately, there is no playbook for balancing a worldwide pandemic against unbridled democratic freedom. Civic organizations and watchdog groups demand guarantees requiring, at the conclusion of our current health crisis, officials return to a limited use of surveillance and spying.
Unfortunately, there simply are no guarantees. It is virtually impossible to foretell where the use of these new technologies will eventually lead. If we have learned anything from history, it is that a society built on paranoia and fear will cease to remain open and pluralistic. Our obsession with absolute public safety may well be our own downfall—just consider the now six million laws in this country and the immensity of our ever-expanding prison population.
Catalyst for Authoritarianism?
In comparing the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which ushered in the excesses of the Patriot Act, the novel coronavirus pandemic may be another powerful catalyst for more authoritarian rule.
The old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” is most appropriate in these uncertain times. There is great eagerness to fully reopen our society, to restore our stricken economy, to return to life as we knew it pre-COVID-19. Two questions remain however: What health consequences are we willing to pay for a free and open economy — and what freedoms are we willing to sacrifice to remain healthy? It is simply impossible to find a perfect balance in an imperfect world.
As we look to the distant past and the superficially halcyon “happy days” of the 1950s, our predecessor generations remind us of a time when Americans faced similar dilemmas. During the Cold War, we turned to technology (nuclear weapons) to safeguard us from the potential evils of the “red menace” — Communism.
In the 1970s, Americans followed a hopeless crusade into Vietnam in an effort to stop the ‘domino-like’ collapse of Asia into socialism. In the ’80s and ’90s, we turned to a ‘war on drugs’ followed by a ‘war on crime,’ each time exchanging freedom for superficial safety. Now, three decades later, we must, once again, adopt a new balance between freedom and safety in defending, this time, against an unseen enemy.
If there is a silver lining in this dark COVID-19 cloud, it’s that a worldwide pandemic may usher in a new era of global awareness and international cooperation between nation-States of the world.
Unfortunately, the containment of COVID-19 in the United States, like many other nations, has begun to reveal the many cracks and fissures within our flimsy socio-economic edifice. Because of these two dichotomies, we, as Americans, are at a crossroads. We could ignore this cooperative opportunity and retreat to a claustrophobic society premised on paranoid isolationism, or we could embrace the opportunity to establish new and renewed ties with the rest of the world as we work together to defeat a common enemy.
Technology is not in and of itself a positive or a negative entity. It is only within its application that we may evaluate social contribution or social threat. While attempting to “contain” the virus, we, as Americans, must also remember to “contain” the exploitation of the very technology designed to protect us. If we fail to learn from history, we may find Big Brother looking down and observing our every baited breath.
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