The novel coronavirus pandemic is causing tens of thousands of deaths, wreaking economic devastation, leading to lockdowns across much of the world, and upending societies and their assumptions. But going forward, one of its most significant legacies will be the way that the pandemic dovetails with another major global disruption of the last few years—the rise and spread of digital surveillance enabled by artificial intelligence (AI).
Public health measures have always depended on surveillance, but that has been especially true in governments’ responses to the coronavirus. China, after initially suppressing news of the outbreak in Wuhan, used its arsenal of surveillance tools to tackle the pandemic. These techniques ranged from deploying hundreds of thousands of neighborhood monitors to log the movements and temperatures of individuals, to the mass surveillance of mobile phone, rail, and flight data to track down people who had traveled to affected regions. But democratic countries in East Asia also used expansive surveillance powers to battle COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. South Korea harnessed closed-circuit television (CCTV) and credit card data to track the movements of individuals, and Taiwan integrated health and other databases so all Taiwanese hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies could access the travel information of their patients.
As they struggle to contain the spread of the virus, Western liberal democracies are looking to China’s tools for limiting the outbreak and wondering whether they should adopt some of those authoritarian methods. Over the past decade, China has been building a digital authoritarian surveillance state at home while vying with the United States on the international stage to determine global standards and shape key network infrastructure, exporting 5G technology and Orwellian systems of facial recognition abroad. The overlap of these two global disruptions—the epidemiological and the technological—will shape the next few years of global history.
East Asian countries have demonstrated that a robust regime of surveillance is essential to fighting a pandemic. Western democracies must rise to meet the need for “democratic surveillance” to protect their own populations. But what models can the West demonstrate that take advantage of the great benefits of AI-enabled surveillance without sacrificing liberal values?
Although poorly understood at the time, one of the biggest long-term impacts of the September 11 attacks was expanded surveillance in the United States and other democracies, by both public and private sectors. Similarly, one of COVID-19’s most important long-term impacts will be the reshaping of digital surveillance across the globe, prompted by the public health need to more closely monitor citizens. The stakes are high. If democracies fail to turn the future of global surveillance in their favor, digital authoritarian competitors stand ready to offer their own model to the world.