John Whitehead's Commentary
Coronavirus vs. the Mass Surveillance State: Which Poses the Greater Threat? [SHORT]
I’ll leave the media and the medical community to speculate about the impact the coronavirus will have on the nation’s health, but how will the government’s War on the Coronavirus impact our freedoms?
For a hint of what’s in store, you can look to China—our role model for all things dystopian—where the contagion started.
In an attempt to fight the epidemic, the government has given its surveillance state apparatus—which boasts the most expansive and sophisticated surveillance system in the world—free rein. Thermal scanners using artificial intelligence (AI) have been installed at train stations in major cities to assess body temperatures and identify anyone with a fever. Facial recognition cameras and cell phone carriers track people’s movements constantly, reporting in real time to data centers that can be accessed by government agents and employers alike. And coded color alerts (red, yellow and green) sort people into health categories that correspond to the amount of freedom of movement they’re allowed: “Green code, travel freely. Red or yellow, report immediately.”
Mind you, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese surveillance state had already been hard at work tracking its citizens through the use of some 200 million security cameras installed nationwide. Equipped with facial recognition technology, the cameras allow authorities to track so-called criminal acts, such as jaywalking, which factor into a person’s social credit score.
Social media credit scores assigned to Chinese individuals and businesses categorize them on whether or not they are “good” citizens. A real-name system—which requires people to use government-issued ID cards to buy mobile sims, obtain social media accounts, take a train, board a plane, or even buy groceries—coupled with social media credit scores ensures that those blacklisted as “unworthy” are banned from accessing financial markets, buying real estate or travelling by air or train. Among the activities that can get you labeled unworthy are taking reserved seats on trains or causing trouble in hospitals.
That same social credit score technology used to identify, track and segregate citizens is now one of China’s chief weapons in its fight to contain the coronavirus from spreading. However, it is far from infallible.
Fighting the coronavirus epidemic has given China the perfect excuse for unleashing the full force of its surveillance and data collection powers. The problem, as Eamon Barrett acknowledges in Fortune magazine, is what happens after: “Once the outbreak is controlled, it’s unclear whether the government will retract its new powers.”
The lesson for the ages: once any government is allowed to expand its powers, it’s almost impossible to pull back.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the government thus far has limited its coronavirus preparations to missives advising the public to stay calm, wash their hands, and cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze.
Don’t go underestimating the government’s ability to lock the nation down if the coronavirus turns into a pandemic, however. After all, the government has been planning and preparing for such a crisis for years now.
The building blocks are already in place for such an eventuality: the surveillance networks, fusion centers and government contractors that already share information in real time; the government’s massive biometric databases that can identify individuals based on genetic and biological markers; the militarized police, working in conjunction with federal agencies, ready and able to coordinate with the federal government when it’s time to round up the targeted individuals; the courts that will sanction the government’s methods, no matter how unlawful, as long as it’s done in the name of national security; and the detention facilities, whether private prisons or FEMA internment camps, that have been built and are waiting to be filled.
On a daily basis, Americans are relinquishing (in many cases, voluntarily) the most intimate details of who we are—their biological makeup, our genetic blueprints, and our biometrics (facial characteristics and structure, fingerprints, iris scans, etc.)—in order to navigate an increasingly technologically-enabled world.
Consider all the ways you continue to be tracked, hunted, hounded, and stalked by the government and its dubious agents:
By tapping into your phone lines and cell phone communications, the government knows what you say. By uploading all of your emails, opening your mail, and reading your Facebook posts and text messages, the government knows what you write. By monitoring your movements with the use of license plate readers, surveillance cameras and other tracking devices, the government knows where you go. By churning through all of the detritus of your life—what you read, where you go, what you say—the government can predict what you will do.
By mapping the synapses in your brain, scientists—and in turn, the government—will soon know what you remember. By mapping your biometrics—your “face-print”—and storing the information in a massive, shared government database available to bureaucratic agencies, police and the military, the government’s goal is to use facial recognition software to identify you (and every other person in the country) and track your movements, wherever you go. And by accessing your DNA, the government will soon know everything else about you that they don’t already know: your family chart, your ancestry, what you look like, your health history, your inclination to follow orders or chart your own course, etc.
The ramifications of a government—any government—having this much unregulated, unaccountable power to target, track, round up and detain its citizens is beyond chilling.
Remember, even the most well-intentioned government law or program can be—and has been—perverted, corrupted and used to advance illegitimate purposes once profit and power are added to the equation.
In the right (or wrong) hands, benevolent plans can easily be put to malevolent purposes.
We’re not quite there yet. But that moment of reckoning is getting closer by the minute.
In the meantime, we’ve got an epidemic to survive, so go ahead and wash your hands. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. And stock up on whatever you might need to survive this virus if it spreads to your community.
We are indeed at our most vulnerable right now, but as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, it’s the American Surveillance State—not the coronavirus—that poses the greatest threat to our freedoms.