Citizens’ civil liberties in the US and Canada are being threatened by governmental overreach through surveillance, all in the name of keeping the countries as safe as possible from the spread of the novel coronavirus. President Donald Trump has activated the National Guard in Washington State, New York, and California to ensure that citizens are staying inside as they have been strongly recommended.
In Quebec and Newfoundland, people have already been arrested or fined for not adhering to self-quarantine measures. Governor Gavin Newsom of California, according to Newsweek, issued a “stay-at-home” order that would come with a $1,000 fine or six months in prison if violated.
Google, Facebook, and other major tech companies are currently in talks with the US government on how to best install tracking technology to monitor citizens.
“While the project raises red flags to privacy advocates, executives involved in the talks told The Washington Post that the data would be aggregated and anonymized and would not enable the government to follow specific individual’s movements,” according to Business Insider.
But if the government finds a way to use private industry to keep track of its citizens, it is going to do so. The bit of lip service paid to the idea that surveillance technology wouldn’t be used to track “individual's movements” isn’t going to convince anyone. Edward Snowden, for one example, has been preaching the reality of mass surveillance for six years.
The bottom line is that the majority of people don’t want to be told what to do—even in the face of a pandemic. And rightly so. An example of this is that three plaintiffs in New Hampshire recently sued the state’s governor for overreaching on citizen’s constitutional protection of the right of free speech and right to assembly. Foisting Draconian measures on a people who are, in large part, already skeptical of their government’s ability to do anything efficiently will always be met with push back.
Canada is under the same threat. Mayor of Toronto, John Tory, has already ordered and obtained “cellphone data from wireless carriers to help it identify where people have assembled in groups, part of its attempts to slow the spread of Covid-19.” Tory says that the data will be used to form a heat map to ensure that people are not congregating in large groups. He did not name the companies that had given the city this data.
Toronto criminal defence lawyer and legal expert Joseph Neuberger has pushed back against the city’s actions, saying that “it seems now that we are going to an extreme, with the suggestion that any level of government can monitor our cell phone activities to determine where people are. And that type of an invasion is, to me, well beyond the danger that we face.”
Poland is also taking drastic measures in order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The Polish government has created a “Home quarantine” app for all Poles to use who are under a 14-day quarantine. The application’s primary function is for users to register selfies when prompted by the police.
The most alarming part of this overt display of governmental overreach is that, if someone under quarantine does not respond to a selfie request within 20 minutes, the app notifies the authorities. According to France 24 News, the police “had slapped a 500-zloty (111-euro, $118) fine on one person who had flouted the mandatory quarantine rules, adding that penalties run as high as 5,000 zlotys.”
“People in quarantine have a choice: either receive unexpected visits from the police, or download this app,” Karol Manys, digital ministry spokesman, told AFP. At a time when, in the US, major cities are temporarily exempting penalties for crimes committed to prevent crowded prisons, there are countries like Poland that are potentially carrying citizens off to jail for refusing to take a selfie.
The very description of this policy unironically screams Orwellian overreach. It is telling how little the Polish government trusts its citizens to take the necessary precautions, which begs the question of why citizens should be expected to trust the government is acting in the interest of the people. There is no way to distinguish between a government implementing public policy in good faith and a cynical, opportunistic power grab. The only common denominator is that people are, either way, having their individual freedoms stripped in the name of safety.
South Korea, with a total of 8 million cameras watching the country at all times, is now one of the most surveilled countries in the world. Although this kind of surveillance was not initiated by the spread of the coronavirus, the country ascribed its success in containing the contagion to the level of monitoring the government has managed to pull over on its citizens for many years.
According to CNA, “South Korea has the highest proportion of cashless transactions in the world. By tracking transactions, it’s possible to draw a card user’s movements on the map.” It makes sense that a country which relies so heavily on technology to keep an eye on its citizens would make paper money basically obsolete. “Second, mobile phones can be used for the same purpose. In 2019, South Korea had one of the world’s highest phone ownership rates (there are more phones than people).”
“CCTV cameras also enable authorities to identify people who have been in contact with COVID-19 patients,” according to CNA News. “In 2014, South Korean cities had over 8 million CCTV cameras, or one camera per 6.3 people. In 2010, everyone was captured an average of 83.1 times per day and every nine seconds while travelling.”
The deployment of heavy surveillance certainly plays a role in the ideological dichotomy of eastern collectivism vs. western individualism. Countries like China and South Korea that have, over decades, worked to shape a culture tolerant of surveillance, always diminish the individual liberties of their citizens. And what’s worse is that the majority of citizens in these heavily surveilled countries are powerless to get out from under the governmental boot once it has firmly stepped on their necks.
There is no circumstance where an individual should be asked to willingly relinquish their civil liberties in the name of some “common good.” A government that demands this, historically speaking, is always acting opportunistically. A clunky machine as massive as the federal government rarely has the ability or desire to draw back its overreach when it’s time to do so. Policies and executive orders that wish to suspend civil liberties, especially without sunset clauses, should be rejected by every citizen without a second thought.
Personal responsibility should take precedence over government interference. Every government has the right to suggest the best precautions to take in a given situation, but they do not have the right to enforce said behavior that violates constitutional rights. If spring breakers wish to huddle in groups of 200 at the beach, throwing caution to the wind, it is incumbent upon the college kids themselves and those who know them to communicate the seriousness of the situation. They shouldn't do it, but they do have the right to be fools.
It is within the government’s power to close down public spaces and institutions in an effort to limit where people can go, but the government should not be able to dictate the specific movements and actions each individual elects to take.
As members of a local community, it is paramount to hold one another accountable. Family and friends should be checking in on one another regularly. Neighbors should be communicating. Everyone has been provided the facts on the seriousness of the virus by now. There is no excuse why any extension of the government should be permitted to enforce its wishes upon people.
Many of us are staying inside because medical professionals have recommended that we do so. But the idea that we could be visited by the police for going outside or not responding to a selfie in a timely manner is beyond ridiculous. To borrow a sentiment from the late Christopher Hitchens, there is no reason why we should have to listen to other mammals tell us that it’s in our best interests to indefinitely put our civil liberties on hold.