Covid-19 Could Normalize Surveillance – or Provide a Moment for Reasserting Rights

“Will we look back at 2020 as the moment privacy finally evaporated?” asks CNN’s international security editor: Privacy International called Covid-19’s impact on privacy “unprecedented.” “9/11 ushered covert and overt surveillance regimes, many of which were unlawful,” said Edin Omanovic, the campaign group’s advocacy director. The surveillance industry “understands that this is an opportunity comparable to 9/11 in terms of legitimizing and normalizing surveillance. We’ve seen a huge willingness from people to help them as much as possible….”

The title of Shoshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” referred to the power and wealth accrued by tech companies who amassed huge amounts of data over the past two decades. She thinks Covid-19 could mark a moment not of the continued, inevitable dominance of these giants, but instead of people reasserting their rights in the way they should have done when these new online hyperpowers emerged. “9/11 compromised our democracies in relationship to tech companies and their growing capabilities,” she said. “We ended 2019 with people around the world in the process of waking up and appreciating the fact that surveillance capitalists have amassed these immense empires of unaccountable power… We’re hitting this wall of mistrust, because we have failed over the last 20 years to create the institutions, legislation and regulatory paradigms that allow us to trust in this new invasive world…” This is a moment for better-informed societies to create the legal framework they’ve lacked to master the power of technology for their benefits, she said…

Yet, like 9/11, the moment is one of panic, coping, and rush for a return to normality, and less of a nuanced discussion about how the crisis can become an opportunity to fix the wrongs of the past. Without that discussion, our new normals may become a world in which a little bit more of our inner selves is out there in the ether, at risk of misuse.