The Complex Danger of Surveillance States

Chin: Yes, in the same year, the police used this technology to track suspects, and they basically openly said, “Well, we changed our minds.”

Lin: And it caused a public outcry. And now they’ve stopped doing it. This is just an example of how easily one use can lead to another.

The pushback led the Singaporean parliament to pass legislation in February 2021 to restrict police use of TraceTogether data. State forces can still access the data, but they need to go through a stricter process to get permission.

It is easy to imagine that not all countries will react in the same way. Several Asian countries have been at the forefront of rolling out COVID-19 tracking apps, and it remains unclear how the relevant authorities will handle the data they have collected in the process. So it was a pleasant surprise when I read that Thailand, which has been promoting its own covid application called MorChana, announced in June that it will close the application and delete all related data.

After our conversation, I keep thinking about what the pandemic means for surveillance technology. First, I think it helped to illustrate that surveillance is not an abstract “evil” that all “good” societies naturally object to. Rather, there is a delicate balance between privacy and social needs such as public health. And it is for this reason that we should expect that governments around the world, including democratic ones, will continue to cite new reasons to justify the use of surveillance technologies. There will always be some kind of crisis to respond to, right?

Instead of relying on governments to take responsibility for the data and fix errors themselves, Chin and Lin said, it’s important to start recognizing the harms of surveillance technologies early on and develop rules to protect against those dangers.

How do you think countries should approach surveillance technologies? Let me know your thoughts at [email protected]

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