Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Oct 10, 2020
There continues to be speculation and worry about what will happen next and about when the pandemic will end and what the world will look like after. Nothing right now can be certain but the rise in surveillance has been a clear consequence.
Modern democracy: Data, surveillance creep and more authoritarian regimes? The pandemic forced governments worldwide to implement lockdowns, restrict freedom and enhance surveillance at a rapid rate. However, surveillance creep is not a new phenomenon of a pandemic world but something that has been prominent for a while now. The 2016 US election and Brexit, followed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, were  pivotal moments that showcased the erosion of privacy, as well as the evident control through AI that large tech corporations have in our everyday lives. This can be argued to have fundamentally changed democracy as we once knew it. Today, in a world battling with coronavirus and powerful technology corporations, will authoritarian surveillance states be our new reality? 

Democracy and the pandemic 

One of the significant consequences of the pandemic has been the rise in authoritarian governance. A climate of fear has naturally enabled these regimes to take hold and can be argued to be threatening democratic governance. As the New York Times reported, the expanding surveillance state could allow governments to detain people and infringe on their privacy and freedom, and reshape the political landscape for years to come. Countries that once criticised China’s authoritarian approach to the coronavirus quickly followed suit by imposing lockdowns and using technology to track their citizens. This rise in use of AI for control has been extremely prominent. Facial recognition, digital contact tracing (DCT) and immunity passports are being implemented by governments worldwide as a way to supposedly protect the well-being of the public. The average person is happy to give personal information and data when health is involved, but will this lead to further tradeoffs of privacy in a post-pandemic world? Should there be such tradeoffs? Will governments start to use more AI to control their citizens? For example, looking at China before the pandemic hit, the use of facial recognition for control was extremely prevalent, with 6.8 million records from a single day, according to Alfred Ng. Now with the pandemic, this has only risen, being used to shame and control Chinese citizens. The United Kingdom, which traditionally is known to be a democratic nation, has seen a rise in right-wing populism and this has only increased during the pandemic. As Mike Buckley argued, ‘even in the midst of the pandemic, we know that it will end, that politics will resume and that it will have been shaped by the arguments made during this time.’ The expedited installation of new technologies by governments must not be ignored. It is important to not let the concern for health overlook the imperative need for regulated technology and individual privacy rights

The power of data 

The rise in surveillance and collection of data is now extremely normalised. Examples include CCTV, facial recognition, social media surveillance, and now in the pandemic, digital contact tracing (DCT) to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is important to consider what ethical implications this has had in regards to privacy and safety. What are governments and corporations doing with the data they are collecting, and what is the ultimate end goal? As Ivana Bartoletti states in her recent book An Artificial Revolution On Power, Politics and AI, ‘Data is not neutral, and the fact that we collect a huge amount of it brings many challenges - not just from the standpoint of privacy but also from the standpoint of power dynamics’. Data has become extremely valuable, arguably the most valuable resource today. This has directly led to the enormous growth in the power of tech corporations in Silicon Valley and continues to directly influence politics worldwide. The clear spread of right-wing populism along with the rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Rodrigo Duterte (amongst others), has evidently shown that data can be used and manipulated to influence political discourse. Santiago Zabala, explains the change from traditional media to social media that has enabled populist messages to spread uncontrollably, making it a more efficient and convenient way for political campaigns and leaders to convey their messages. Social media has become a source of news, opinions and overflow of information, making it hard to distinguish between fake news and credible facts. Additionally, creating mass mistrust in traditional media sources. It is important to recognise the relationship between social media and politics involving secret surveillance and data harvesting, which has directly impacted trust, individual privacy and autonomy. However, with the shift in power dynamics, there is a growing ethics community advocating for stronger guidelines, accountability and protection of data to safeguard human rights. Many guidelines and policies have been implemented to prevent ethics breaches and to directly protect data privacy. For example, in 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) law was rolled out by the European Union, and many ethical AI guidelines such as Ethics Guidelines for Trustworthy AI, Ethically Aligned Design (IEEE) and Beijing AI Principles have been introduced across the world. These have been vital in striving towards safe, responsible and accountable technology. 2020 has been a year that has had a significant impact on everyone's way of living, also inflicting a lot of tragedy worldwide. There continues to be speculation and worry about what will happen next and about when the pandemic will end and what the world will look like after. Nothing right now can be certain but the rise in surveillance has been a clear consequence. This continued use of data and surveillance by large tech corporations and governments is no doubt a worry that must not be ignored.  We must ask ourselves, how do we mitigate future risks of more ethics breaches and keep the rights of society safe?
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