The Dangers of Surveillance in the Name of Safety


They’re everywhere. Seeming to multiply like flies on a Hershey bar. Mobile devices in every hand. Cameras on every street. And hordes of eager consumers clamoring to claim the latest tech device. All of which only serves to help in the constant surveillance of the general public.

To be sure, technology has made our lives more convenient. Today’s tech is even being heralded as a frontline weapon in the war against the coronavirus. But at what cost?

We See You

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, big data was using the latest tech to gradually erode personal privacy. In recent years, millions of camera-equipped drones have taken to the sky. On the ground, video surveillance systems, from doorbell cameras to streetcorner CCTVs, are getting to be about as ubiquitous as pimples on a chocolate-scarfing teenager. 

And that means that when you leave your house, you’re almost certainly going to be under some kind of surveillance. What’s even more disturbing is that there are few limits on how these technologies can be used.

Consider drones. What was once marketed for consumers primarily as a child’s toy or a hobbyist’s tech is now being used by governments, the military, and law enforcement, and pretty much any organization or individual who wants it. At the same time, the laws are proving increasingly ineffective at keeping up. Right now, regulations on how, when, and where drones can be used are little more than a confusing patchwork, varying widely from one nation to another.  

The most common framework is that drone use is to be highly restricted for recreational use. Only when they are used for approved military purposes, whether for national security, disaster response, or some other measure related to public safety, are drones practically unrestricted. 

But “military use” is incredibly difficult to define. In general, that encompasses any action that serves the national interest and helps to protect US citizens, the homeland, and/or its allies. The recently ratified Liberty Act, for instance, has even waived the requirement of a warrant for surveilling the communications of US citizens that “incidentally” (i.e. not deliberately) acquired, as long as it is for a “legitimate national security purpose.” 

Such definitions are inherently broad and ambiguous, and when you leave it up to politicians and their cronies to determine what it means and how it’s to be used, you’re leaving a lot of leeway for potential misuse and abuse. In the face of largely toothless laws, that means you’re putting your trust in strangers to use the new tech only for ethical and human purposes.

We Know Where You Are

We all know that the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic is massive, but perhaps one of the most chilling effects is the impact it’s going to have on privacy. In the name of slowing the spread, government officials, public health researchers, and other big data champions are already using personal cell phone data to track people’s movements worldwide.

That might be fine if the data were truly and reliably anonymized, as proponents claim. But the history of data security is not great. As anyone who has ever banked with Capital One or stayed at the Marriott. But it’s not just security breaches we have to worry about. The internet is already laden with so-called “information brokers” who are ceaselessly trolling your data for the material they can use for their own purposes, good or ill.

And that pattern of virtually limitless data mining is only bound to get worse now that we have the fear of COVID to “legitimize” the government’s surveillance of its citizens in the name of public health and safety. With the proliferation of location tracking, even in the name of public health, you may well be giving up the right every law-abiding citizen has: the right not to be found unless and until you want to.

We Know What You’re Doing

It’s not just our cell phones that risk giving us away and subjecting us to surveillance. As our tech-obsession grows, our privacy decreases. The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to all internet-connected devices, including all those fun devices that make life so interesting today. 

With the IoT, you can watch movies, play games, and connect with loved ones. We can also monitor our health, from tracking our steps and sleep hygiene to taking at home EKGs and blood pressure and glucose readings. 

That can be a tremendous health benefit, especially for detecting emerging health issues before they erupt into a full-blown crisis. But that also puts your privacy at risk. Because if your sensitive personal data, especially health data, fall into the wrong hands, who knows how it may be used against you and by whom. 

The Takeaway

We all want to be safe. Above all, we all want our loved ones to be protected. That is true no matter what the threat, whether it be coronavirus or something even more potentially sinister. There is immense potential for harm, however, in giving away our rights too quickly or completely. There is immense room for regret if we too readily gift our trust to those who do not deserve it. The power of technology is truly incredible, but we must not allow its benefits to lull us into a false sense of security. And we must certainly not help those who would do us harm load the very guns they may someday turn on us.

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Charlie Fletcher

Charlie Fletcher is a freelance writer from the lovely "city of trees"- Boise, Idaho. Her love of writing pairs with her passion for social activism and search for the truth. When not writing she is a part-time wedding planner and spending time with her nephews. And yes, she does love all kinds of potatoes!