Most of Europe is back in lockdown, presumably as punishment for our sins of going outside during the summer, and as preparation for the Christmas holidays. It feels like being back in school, where a patronizing teacher indicates that the children are incapable of behaving themselves. To some Europeans, this is a surprising development. Yet to lovers of liberty, the fact that power leads to ever-expanding power is no news.
There are many “I told you so’s” in this pandemic, events that were entirely predictable given the track record of government institutions. Here are some examples.
Privacy concerns remain over inefficient COVID apps
As COVID-19 cases spike once again, many European governments return to the idea of Coronavirus apps, which contact-trace the population and indicate to people that they need to quarantine after they had been in touch with a person who is infected. Many issues resulted from such apps, with an early German version unable to know that the “close contact” was behind a wall in a completely different room. During the first wave, governments had underestimated the work behind a massive rollout of such a technology.
Apart from the real technical obstacles, there are the legitimate stakes on the protection of individual freedoms (it is a question of tracing the history of each individual’s social relations, via their smartphone, which involves collecting, processing and storing data). As early as in April, I had warned that COVID-19 mobile apps were likely to threaten the privacy of citizens. In Poland, the COVID-19 app required regular selfies from users that are infected. Needless to say, download rates of government apps have stayed low (where they have been voluntary), and the efficiency of these apps has been questioned throughout.
Adding to that, governments ignored that
- A large number of people do not own a smartphone
- Contact-tracing apps need to be combined with large-scale testing efforts, that double-check the efficiency of the app by verifying the effect of contact with infected people according to the duration of time spent with them
The government is inefficient at protecting individual rights and is unable to understand the scale of efforts that involve the entire population? Not a surprise, told you so.
Germany’s law enforcement uses customer registration for policing
As many citizens have not been willing to use government-run or government-endorsed COVID-19 contact tracing apps, Germany resorted to manual tracing via customer registrations forms in places like bars and restaurants. These registrations forms had to be demanded by the owners of establishments, under punishment of hefty fines. However, lacking the police powers to verify the information provided, the forms also represented a more than a flimsy attempt at manual tracing. Transferring, digitalizing and efficiently using manual contact tracing information is bureaucratic and ineffectively slow in fighting this virus. So far, the German government has yet to provide evidence that provides backing for this practice.
However, that is not to say that the government has no use for the data. In July, it was revealed that as much as five federal states had used COVID-19 contact-tracing information for purposes of law enforcement. German Constitutional Court rulings have previously decided that citizens own their own data, even if provided to government agencies. That said, the court left leeway for “proportional use” of this data for the purpose of policing. One will rest assured that German law enforcement sees the need for the use of this data as frequently as possible.
The government uses reduced awareness for personal privacy and a crisis in itself as an excuse to erode civil liberties? Told you so.
Authoritarian governments use the virus as an excuse
The pandemic offers many opportunities to authoritarian regimes, since measures to restrict rights or tighten controls on individuals can be justified by an overriding need to protect the health of all. Dictators have thus been able to develop surveillance and tracking systems on a large scale, multiplying networks of surveillance cameras coupled with geolocation software and facial recognition algorithms in the name of health security.
Amnesty International has counted no less than 46 countries from Kyrgyzstan to Russia, Pakistan and Malaysia that have put such a surveillance net over their populations, often with Chinese technology. It seems unlikely to be dismantled once the epidemic is over.
The other characteristic of these regimes is that they do not tolerate criticism of their management of the epidemic. This system, therefore, also serves to silence whistleblowers. For example, China arrested the doctors who discovered the virus, accusing them of spreading false rumors, because they had been right too soon. The same reaction was seen in Pakistan, where 53 doctors were jailed for demanding protective equipment. In countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, laws have also been passed that prohibit health workers from publishing any statistics on disease, under threat of severe penalties.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage on, but the infringements on individual liberty cannot, especially if we’re in for the long-run on fighting this virus. Once we forgot how to be free, it will be excruciatingly hard to go back.
Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg. His works have been published in The Times of London, the Washington Examiner, Newsweek, Die Welt, and Le Monde.