It’s not uncommon for concerns around the erosion of civil liberties to be dismissed as so improbable that they don’t even warrant consideration. Threats to some of our most fundamental rights and freedoms are said to be overstated, confined to the dystopian world of an Orwellian novel. Yet, in 2020, our rights have been rolled back to an unprecedented level.
Few would argue that coronavirus lockdown measures are not necessary. Without them, the human cost would be cataclysmic and individuals would not receive the care they need, as the NHS would be overwhelmed. However, we can never accept this state of flux as our way of life, nor let it become the “new normal”.
In times of crisis, governments throughout history have used major events to seize power. The US Patriot Act, which followed 9/11, turned the land of the free into a quasi-surveillance state where everything down to library book selection became fair game for state monitoring.
Contact tracing has been at the forefront of many governments’ responses to Covid-19. Countries across the world have, to varying degrees, introduced apps to monitor the spread of the virus and used tech to examine the observance of social distancing rules.
At best, these have been effective at tracking down the spread of the virus, ensuring individuals self-isolate and receive the care they need. At worst, they have been coercive and intrusive, and amount more to population control than public health management. In Taiwan, a slight breach of the rules can result in a knock at the door from the police.
Britain has often trodden a careful path when it comes to balancing security and liberty. But following models branded as efficient which forsake civil liberties in favour of greater state control is not unforeseeable, particularly as the crisis continues and the public demand answers.
The Investigatory Powers Act gave the government the power to acquire communications data in bulk. Questions have been asked over whether it has already requested this data from mobile network providers in order to monitor compliance with lockdown measures.
Apple and Google have been tasked with supporting the government in its development of a contact-tracing app. The tech giants have taken a cautionary approach so far. Aware of the precariousness of this technology, their approach has been to resist giving governments central control. This is less a question of not trusting the British state to do the right thing and more a case of ensuring the appropriate safeguards are in place.
While we cannot permit tech-based public health solutions turning our society into a police state, we must also not allow these fears to let us fall behind the rest of the world. If it is to respect our right to privacy, a contact-tracing app rolled out in the UK should be optional, decentralised and be for the benefit of those using it, not just the government.
If the search for a vaccine ends up taking longer than the 12-18 month period initially predicted, the danger is that there would be a shift in norms, that we would become accustomed to the situation and therefore allow the government to retain the powers they have taken to overcome this crisis, even once the problem has passed. What is good for fighting a pandemic is not good for a free society.
When the time is right and the public health situation allows it, we must roll back the government’s recent encroachments and reclaim our rights and freedoms. In the meantime, we must keep a watchful eye over the use of those measures designed to keep us safe.