Pandemic Gives Government Perfect Excuse to Monitor Citizens
Crises are the perfect breeding ground for authoritarians and social engineers. The extreme measures governments have rolled out to contain the COVID-19 pandemic remind us that fear often trumps any proportionality or civil-liberties concern.
Since it originated in Wuhan, the crisis has exposed the spread and depth of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) mass-surveillance apparatus. Through smartphones, the government tracks citizens’ movements in real-time and decides who can go to public spaces and use transportation. Ubiquitous cameras capable of facial recognition store movement records. Like a scene out of George Orwell’s 1984, police drones chase and scold people outside their homes.
Rather than recoiling in horror and denouncing this overreach, Western nations and media have reacted with a mix of envy and awe. Israel, South Korea, Singapore, and India have copied the Orwellian tactics, whereas the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and the United States are looking into “contact-tracing phone apps” to alert those who may have been near an infected person.
In Canada, authorities at the federal and provincial levels are openly—and not so openly—moving forward with several initiatives. Here are five ways the surveillance state is trying to look over Canadians’ unsuspecting shoulders.
- Cell phone data collection: officially in the works, unofficially underway. Toronto Mayor John Tory sparked outrage late March when he told thousands of viewers of an online event that “cell phone companies give us all the data on the pinging off their network on the weekend, so we could see where people were still congregating … I asked for it, and I’m getting it.”
A city spokesman later tried to walk back, claiming the mayor misspoke and referenced a mere offer by an unnamed carrier to share cell phone information. Asked whether it could happen nationwide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said “all options” were on the table during the health emergency. The Ontario government has announced it would welcome such a move, and Bell Canada also left the door open, saying it “would consider it if it helps in the fight against COVID-19 while respecting privacy laws.”
- Police access to medical data. In Ontario, the declaration of a state of emergency means the province’s police can now check a government database for someone’s otherwise confidential COVID-19 status information. Officers with respondent and patrolling duties in Waterloo already have access, which they promise will only use “to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of the COVID-19 emergency.” The measure will outlive the provincial emergency, though: the data will remain in police records for six more months after it ends. Canada’s track record of safeguarding medical information is not great.
- “Voluntary” tracking apps are coming. Several Canadian cities and provinces are exploring the development of different apps to let their users share location data with health authorities. One such effort led by MILA—a research centre created by the University of Montréal and McGill University—is in talks with the Montreal mayor’s office, the Quebec government, and the federal government. The app would be compliant with Canada’s privacy laws and compile only anonymous data, the team claims. Another team in Quebec is developing an app that would store GPS location and identifiable information. Tech giants Google and Apple have also teamed up to create a Bluetooth-based system available worldwide, although Health Canada has not commented on whether it would seek to use it.
The line between optional and mandatory apps is blurry. At least one province, Alberta, has left the door open to enforcing quarantine orders with smartphones. If authorities require the app to access government buildings, public spaces, or transportation, Canadians’ freedom of movement could end up significantly restricted.
- Big data intelligence. Not one to miss an opportunity to push for broader surveillance, the nation’s spy agencies are quietly operating behind the scenes. In the past months, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) has secured sweeping powers to collect and analyze more information on Canadian citizens. We do not know what classes of data the CSIS plans to collect and why, as the agency deleted that from disclosed documents.
- Reliance on Chinese technology. Unlike the United States, Canada continues to use made-in-China equipment other countries have deemed a national-security risk. Most of Transport Canada’s drones are from a Chinese firm the US government has grounded over espionage concerns. The Canadian army also operates surveillance cameras our southern neighbour has banned for potentially sending information back to Beijing. Further, the Trudeau administration is still on the fence on whether to allow Huawei a role in the country’s 5G network despite international peer consensus and pleas from military commanders. If contact-tracing apps become widespread on phones, the potential damage of foreign meddling vastly increases.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has urged Trudeau and the premiers to use COVID-19 tech surveillance as a last resort. It seems we are headed in that direction anyway. The federal privacy commissioner has already issued guidance on how to conduct data collection, given its swift rise.
Canadians must not lower their guards. Americans know from the aftermath of 9/11 and Edward Snowden’s revelations how politicians exploit fear and tragedy to their own ends. “As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world,” he said in a recent interview. The virus will pass, but the surveillance state is a guest that always overstays its welcome.
Daniel Duarte contributed to this article.