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Will Big Brother Ever Give Up Watching Us?

Sunday 31 May 2020, by Messaoud Romdhani

“Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its actions.” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish)

Because of the global health crisis related to the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on people, governments have resorted to restrictive measures including state of emergency, social distancing and the use of advanced technological tools. While these measures seem to be vital in avoiding the spread of the disease and in protecting public health, some governments have seized the opportunity to undertake more repressive measures through massive arrests, restrictions on information and communication, harsh confinement rules and increased digital surveillance.

Big brother is watching you

According to the Guardian newspaper, the coronavirus pandemic has led to a large increase in the use of digital surveillance, as billions of people around the world are being closely monitored. So, to enforce social isolation, governments have recourse to a multitude of technological devices: mobile data tracking, networks with facial recognition, drones…

The high degree of monitoring would raise eyebrows in normal times, especially in liberal democracies. But everybody understands that these are not “normal times” and people’s health depends much on surveillance, since an exceptional situation requires exceptional measures, and “an emergency situation requires emergency measures,” admits the pro-democracy French philosopher, Edgar Morin.

The worry, however, is that these measures that affect people’s private life don’t seem to have sunset clauses and the risk is that they might become the “new normal” when the pandemic is over.

And while international human rights organizations, like Amnesty International, have warned that digital surveillance can only be used to tackle public health, and that should be done only if “certain conditions are met, still, many questions remain unanswered: For instance, how far should governments go in their surveillance of individuals to enforce isolation? In other words, how do we know that monitoring has gone too far? And do governments really care about balancing the prevention of contamination and the protection of privacy and the individual human rights? One thing for sure: “All that belongs to the individual becomes more and more transparent, whereas all that belongs to the field of State becomes more and more opaque.”

Economic insecurity and populism

In fact, Covid-19 may be a challenge to liberal democracy. As economic insecurity is deepening due, partly, to the effect of the pandemic on national and international economies, there is a high risk that a second wave of populism would conquer the world. The leaders of this decade-long trend view democracy and its liberal institutions as corrupt and sterile and they never miss an opportunity to undermine them, always in the name of the “people”. Now, as the death toll rises, exposing the deficiency of health care systems all over the world, the nationalist and populist rhetoric is gaining more ground. Despite their failure to adopt efficient strategies to address the virus spread in their countries, populist leaders still have, in times of crises, the wind in their sails.

As a reminder, the first wave gained ground after 2008 crisis. Now, all its ingredients are there: economic depression, low trust in political parties, more anti-migration phobia, a great hatred for crooked elites, and a rising fear about the future. And to top it all, the virus has much contributed to the consolidation and centralization of power, laying down the foundations for a democratic backsliding.

Settling scores

Unlike 2019 which was the year of social protests all over the world, 2020 has become the year of house confinement and digital protests. Take the Arab region. Although most countries are not much affected by the virus (one of the reasons may be its young population, as more than 60% are under the age of thirty), most governments in the region have adopted harsh measures that severely affect individual freedoms, including the freedom of communication.

Algeria is a case in point. Authorities have seized the opportunity of the pandemic to silence the one-year Hirak (protest movement). Not only have they banned gatherings since mid- March, but they have also embarked on an unprecedented wave of arrests of several activists. Independent journalists are not spared, either. Press freedom groups, including Reporters without Borders, regretted that “Algerian authorities are taking advantage of the epidemic to settle scores with independent journalism.”

Iraqi protests that started in October 2019 to denounce rampant corruption, endemic unemployment and inefficient public services, have been impacted by the virus pandemic. Repression, led by both the government and militia groups, has continued relentlessly. The pandemic has added more hardships to the life of the citizens as it has, once more, demonstrated the fragility of health care, “If you go to a hospital here sick, you may go out dead,” an Iraqi told a journalist. Repression, death threats and coronavirus fears have led slowed down the street movement, even when the lockdown began to ease. But determined youths believe that protests are going soon to regain momentum until their demands are met.

As coronavirus spreads in Egypt, the military regime tightens its grip, reducing the hope for democratic change. Beginning of May, new amendments, giving the president additional powers, are adopted. International and national human rights observers believe that these powers are not meant to combat the virus, but to increase abuses. The Egyptian government “is using the pandemic to expand abusive emergency law,” said a Human Rights Watch spokesperson.

Civil wars and occupation

The civil war in Syria, Yemen and Libya erodes the possibilities to curtail the disease, not only because these countries are poorly-equipped with the necessary tools, but also central governments have no control of the whole country. And Palestinians, under the Israeli- occupation suffer the same fate. The densely-populated Gaza Strip, with one of the poorest population in the world, is under a blockade from both Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian Authority that controls less than a half of the West bank finds it hard to cope with the pandemic.

In the meantime, some western political leaders, who have learnt nothing from past lessons, continue to fuel civil wars and back dictators in a very unstable region. But for how long? A BBC political analyst warns: “Big players in the Middle East will have to rethink dangerous and expensive foreign policy. The days of buying influence and fighting proxy wars may be over soon.”

So, a word to the wise!!!

Messaoud Romdhani is a Tunisian human rights activist, member of the EB of Euromed Rights.