COVID Technologies Feeding Into the Global Surveillance State

By: Mike Maharrey

In another frightening example of “mission creep,” governments around the world are using technologies developed during the COVID-19 pandemic to expand dragnet surveillance.

According to an AP report, “Authorities used these technologies and data to halt travel for activists and ordinary people, harass marginalized communities and link people’s health information to other surveillance and law enforcement tools. In some cases, data was shared with spy agencies.”

This is eerily similar to the way the governments in the U.S. used the terrorism threat after 9/11 to dramatically expand their national surveillance state. Expanded government authority under legislation such as the Patriot Act sold as “terrorism prevention” was quickly turned into a domestic surveillance network used to spy on political activists and to fight the unconstitutional “war on drugs.”

Citizen Lab senior researcher John Scott-Railton summed it up.

“Any intervention that increases state power to monitor individuals has a long tail and is a ratcheting system. Once you get it, is very unlikely it will ever go away.”

According to the AP, “journalists interviewed sources and pored over thousands of documents to trace how technologies marketed to ‘flatten the curve’ were put to other uses.

“Just as the balance between privacy and national security shifted after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, COVID-19 has given officials justification to embed tracking tools in society that have lasted long after lockdowns.”

In Israel, authorities used mass surveillance technology developed to stop the spread of coronavirus to pinpoint people involved in violent protests in the spring of 2021. An Israeli security agency sent texts to hundreds of people.

“You have been spotted as having participated in acts of violence in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. We will hold you accountable.”

The problem is many of the people who received the text simply lived or worked in the area.

In Australia, police used COVID tracking technology during the investigation of the murder of a biker gang leader at a Perth speedway. According to the AP, “police accessed QR code check-in data from the health apps of 2,439 drag racing fans who attended the December 2020 race. It included names, phone numbers and arrival times.”

There is also evidence that U.S. authorities have taken advantage of the data collection and tracking technology rolled out during the pandemic to expand the surveillance state.

“In the U.S., which relied on a hodge-podge of state and local quarantine orders to ensure compliance with COVID rules, the federal government took the opportunity to build out its surveillance toolkit, including two contracts in 2020 worth $24.9 million to the data mining and surveillance company Palantir Technologies Inc. to support the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ pandemic response. Documents obtained by the immigrant rights group Just Futures Law under the Freedom of Information Act and shared with the AP showed that federal officials contemplated how to share data that went far beyond COVID-19.”

Scott-Railton said the expansion tools used for COVID to general surveillance sets a dangerous precedent.

“What COVID did was accelerate state use of these tools and that data and normalize it, so it fit a narrative about there being a public benefit,” he said. “Now the question is, are we going to be capable of having a reckoning around the use of this data, or is this the new normal?”

It’s almost a certainty that data collected by a government agency will end up in multiple government databases through the Information Sharing Environment (ISE).

The feds can share and tap into vast amounts of information gathered at the state and local level through the ISE and fusion centers. In other words, COVID tracking creates the potential for the federal government to broadly track the movement of millions of Americans with no warrant, no probable cause, and without the people even knowing it.

Fusion centers were sold as a tool to combat terrorism, but that is not how they are being used. The ACLU pointed to a bipartisan congressional report to demonstrate the true nature of government fusion centers: “They haven’t contributed anything meaningful to counterterrorism efforts. Instead, they have largely served as police surveillance and information sharing nodes for law enforcement efforts targeting the frequent subjects of police attention: Black and brown people, immigrants, dissidents, and the poor.”

Fusion centers operate within the broader ISE. According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators…have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Known ISE partners include the Office of Director of National Intelligence which oversees 17 federal agencies and organizations, including the NSA. ISE utilizes these partnerships to collect and share data on the millions of unwitting people they track.

This is precisely why the government should never be given any leeway to warrantlessly gather information and track individuals for any reason – even “public health.”