Tensions between Surveillance and Public Health


Speaking as a Libertarian, I cannot fail to notice the ever-increasing disregard expressed by both of our major British political parties regarding freedom and privacy. Indeed, they seem to use arguments surrounding national safety as well as security like weapons against our inherited ideals of democracy, accountability and social justice (not unlike the aftermath of September 11 attacks), instead of practical medical precautions.


Altogether, current COVID-19 restrictions and the looming fact of yet another lockdown across our nation appear to be sliding into mild caricatures of openly totalitarian regimes, which we used to denounce on the basis of humanitarianism, whilst the removal of citizen’s fundamental liberties is more or less completely ignored by the powers that be, and apparently commonplace. After all, as Lord Sumption stated: “We need a sense of proportion and an ability to learn from our long experience of a problem that has been with humanity as long as humanity has existed” to successfully maintain our liberty.


Each indicating, it is urgent to heed these words in our preservation of received civic freedoms and recall basic human rights, and to find sensible and rational ways to stem the flow of hysteria and barely-discussed legislation now clearly running rampant. Certainly, critics of the UK government’s pandemic policy attest that the cancellation of surgical operations, closure of businesses, and restriction of liberty for hypothetical notions of safety will cause more cumulative damage than the virus itself in the long-run, through fear and isolation.


It goes without saying, existing and new digital technologies, for instance the NHS Track and Trace, are being used to enhance and complement traditional measures, such as rigorous policing, to accompany real-time mass monitoring at individual and aggregate levels. Although governments and companies have attempted to reassure the public about the innocence of such solutionist technologies on civil liberties and privacy, it is unquestionably clear that they nevertheless have profound implications for citizenship, governmentality, and “control creep”, all reinforcing the logic of “surveillance capitalism”.


An additional impact is, of course, that not ensuring civil liberties can probably undermine public health efforts by weakening trust in the Government and encouraging dissent amongst people. Assuredly, if people feel their freedom is being infringed or they are being managed or targeted in ways that induce distress, then the consequence will be that they find ways to circumvent, subvert, and avoid testing or seeking health care.