Is COVID-19 Paving The Way For Authoritarianism And Mass Surveillance?

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to our lives and habits.

A lot of things have changed in our laws as well.

National lockdowns, travel restrictions, and fines are now the norm all around the world.

But while you’re worrying about your family, your house, your job, or your next grocery delivery, more and more governments are biting into the forbidden fruit of surveillance.

Claiming to monitor quarantines and self-isolating people, authorities are now giving themselves more rights than ever over people’s freedom.

Things are bad, and they’re about to get worse. Authoritarianism is on the rise, turning into a reality in places like Europe’s Hungary.

So, read on and let me tell you all about the surveillance operation authorities are undertaking in the name of keeping you safe.

The evil in Europe’s backyard

The novel virus and its rapid spread brought unprecedented changes on a global scale.

One-third of the human population is now under lockdown. To put things into perspective, that’s more people than were alive during World War II..

And while social distancing and isolation have taken their toll on us, the general population, things have also been chaotic for the authorities.

Faced with dwindling medical equipment supplies, understaffed hospitals, and people breaking quarantine regulations every day, government officials went for stricter measures.

And it came new legislation packages.

You might not be surprised to hear that China embraced new surveillance capabilities. But now, troubling news is coming out of Europe.

Yes, I’m talking about Hungary.

A lockdown turned dictatorship

Authoritarianism is all about submission to authority. It’s the opposite of individualism and democracy. In authoritarian governments, political power is condensed into one authority figure or figures. Their power is unrestrained, and they answer to no one.

Hungary reported its first two coronavirus cases on March 4, 2020.

Just three days later, authorities canceled the celebrations for the Hungarian Revolution.

On March 11, the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency.

Now, a lot of governments did this. But while nations like Italy or Japan gave it a 6-month window, Gergely Gulyás, a Hungarian state official, mentioned the measures might be in place indefinitely in the country.

There’s no deadline for the pandemic, so people didn’t think much of this initially. But things quickly took a turn for the worse.

The Parliament handed over the power to rule by decree to the prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Supposedly until the pandemic is over, but the government is the one deciding when the crisis is over.

For as long as the state of emergency remains in place, Viktor Orbán is a dictator.

A new power rises

By definition, a state of emergency comes with a reduction in personal freedom. They are enacted when an event like a war threatens the nation. The government is granted more power than usual to protect its citizens and its territory.

During pandemics, lockdowns and travel restrictions make sense, since they help prevent infection.

But this reality playing out in Hungary looks scary.

During his years as Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has overseen a rollback of human rights in Hungary, stoking up hostility towards marginalized groups and attempting to muzzle Hungary’s critical voices.
David Vig, Amnesty International Hungary

Granting Viktor Orbán not just more power, but unlimited power is cause for concern.

It’s grim for Hungary

Under a national state of emergency and with the power to rule indefinitely, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán can now:

        • Pass new bills unimpeded by the Parliament
        • Suspend or otherwise change existing laws
        • Suspend future elections
        • Change penalties for existing laws
        • Limit free speech and label opposing views as disinformation
        • Exploit coronavirus fears to gain political power with no opposition

First thing he did with his newfound power? Strip away transgender rights.

It sounds like a textbook authoritarian regime. Democracy might’ve just suffered its final blow in Hungary.

Authoritarianism in the making around the world

For authoritarian-minded leaders, Hungary is setting a precedent.

Philippine’s President Duterte also made headlines when he publicly ordered the police and military to shoot anyone who “creates trouble.”

Let this be a warning to all. Follow the government at this time because it is critical that we have order. And do not harm the health workers, the doctors… because that is a serious crime. My orders to the police and the military, if anyone creates trouble, and their lives are in danger: shoot them dead. Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose.

In Turkey, Erdogan’s government has detained people who have been critical of its response to the coronavirus.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro has been attacking the media and accusing it of sparking hysteria over the pandemic to undermine his government, due to what he views as a “measly cold.” But even street gangs are now imposing strict lockdown measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

In the land of the free, Fox News didn’t shy away from controversy, portraying the coronavirus as an “impeachment scam.” As if the public needed another batch of fake news.

China: the apparent role-model

In China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has officially declared the coronavirus threat over. Because they were the firsts to tackle it, Chinese officials are now experts on the matter.

The timeline now also gives China the chance to pose as a savior, donating medical equipment and offering advice. And it’s working. Countries across Latin America have publicly praised China for its generosity.

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma also donated 5.4 million face masks and over a million test kits to African countries. Coincidently, the company he founded, Alibaba, has previously expressed interest in bettering Africa’s network infrastructure and digital capabilities.

And while Europe and the US are heavily affected by the crisis and are pouring all their resources to battle COVID-19, China is moving in to position itself as a global leader.

The global powers might be about to shift.

Chinese money is powering some parts of the world

China has been fighting for economic dominance for years.

And while the Trade War with the US was a thing, other countries were not so reluctant to accept China’s aid.

Chinese companies, like Huawei and Hikvision, have already exported artificial intelligence surveillance technology to more than 60 countries. Iran, Myanmar, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and other places that are known for lacking in the human rights department are on the list.

But China has also heavily invested in different sectors worldwide, such as agriculture, finance, real estate, or tourism.

For example, the China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China issued 85 loans amounting to $150.4 billion from 2005 to 2017 for energy, transportation, and infrastructure projects.

China also invests large sums of money in Russian, Ecuadorian, Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Angolan oil projects. And in coal-fired power plants in Eastern Europe. And in a mix of coal and hydro in South East Asia.

You get the picture. Chinese money is in a lot of places.

But let’s leave geopolitics aside for a moment and look at how the coronavirus pandemic started.

Wuhan – the name we now all know

A novel coronavirus was first reported back in December 2019.

The first reports of the illness begun in Wuhan, but CCP officials tried their best to suppress any news regarding the troubling novel coronavirus even though they were aware of the risks posed by their animal markets for decades.

On December 21, Chinese epidemiologists with the Chinese Center for Disease Control have identified a “pneumonia of an unknown cause,” but the matter was still not out in the open.

A few days later, hospital staff started falling victim to the new disease. A quarantine was instituted on the premises.

Finally, officials admitted they were dealing with something more serious.

Dr. Li Wenliang was among the first medics who tried to warn the world but was repeatedly told by police to “stop making false comments” and was investigated for spreading rumors.

Time was wasted, while infected people were free to carry on with their daily lives. US intelligence has by now confirmed that the scale of the pandemic would have been considerably less severe if China “had been more forthcoming.”

CCP officials also provided false data to the WHO, claiming that the virus has no human to human transmission. This significantly delayed an international response, and many hospitals had no time to prepare or stock up on supplies.

Hubei’s lockdown

On January 23, authorities introduced lockdown measures in Hubei.

Just a few days after the Chinese government locked down Hubei, the government requested data from telecoms carriers to make a list of people who had entered or left the city.

And this is how a list of people deemed high-risk came to be. Police forces were then tasked with finding them.

Then, tech giant Alibaba created a health app that measured exposure to infected people by tracking their location. This was applauded even by the World Health Organization.

Other measures have also been implemented. Getting into an apartment compound or workplace by scanning a QR code, and writing down your name and ID number, temperature, and recent travel history became the norm.

Now the CCP’s narrative is that the battle against the pandemic has been won thanks to the diligence of the Chinese people and the party’s effective measures. But leaked footage shows the army barring down doors, building fences to keep people from leaving, and physically assaulting people suspected of being infected.

Despite the invasion of privacy and human rights abuses, other governments saw that surveillance could ease tackling quarantine measures.

But China is an authoritarian regime. The draconian laws the CCP imposed didn’t look out-of-place in Wuhan. With the social credit system and omnipresent surveillance, it wasn’t all just social responsibility.

Mass surveillance is back on the agenda

In the old days, before the coronavirus, the US government has often claimed that mass surveillance is a safety measure that protects citizens from potential terrorist attacks. Privacy activists have expressed concern just as often.

But looking at information disclosed by the National Security Agency, evidence suggests mass surveillance it’s not effective.

So, how does this translate to the current pandemic?

Epidemiologists and virologists worldwide recommend social distancing, frequent hand washing, and avoiding large crowds. But some government officials and law enforcement agencies claim they have a hard time keeping up with people who break quarantine.

Welcome to the age of digitally tracking people with apps.

Your phone is always tracking you

All smartphones now have a GPS integrated into their operating systems. It’s a useful feature, allowing you to use stuff like maps or fitness apps, or to find services in your area.

Usually, tracking your location means companies know about your hobbies, where you like to eat, how much time you spend shopping, and so on.

But during these pandemic times, location data can also show how much time you spend at home. And this data is being harvested by authorities around the world in the fight against COVID-19.

Hangzhou, China

The city of Hangzhou was one of the first cities to loosen up lockdown restrictions, mainly for economic reasons.

There, citizens were required to use smartphone software that dictated whether they should be quarantined or allowed into public spaces, like malls and subways.

But the software didn’t just monitor or determine infection risks based on an unknown algorithm. It also shared data with the police. And of course, neither the developers nor CCP officials have clarified how the software works.

Despite being promoted as just a way to flatten the curve, the surveillance software might be here to stay. Not transparent at all, but common under the CCP’s tight rule.

Asia

South Korea has been getting praise for its response to the pandemic, even though it involves a lot of surveillance. The Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention rolled out a system that aggregates databases. It can trace infected people within just 10 minutes.

Taiwan also managed to keep the spread under control by using an electronic fence. It tracks smartphones to make sure quarantined people stay at home.

Officials in Singapore also rolled out an app called TraceTogether. It helps identify those who came in close contact with infected patients. Later, Singapore shared the app with developers worldwide.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Turkmenistan, the hermetic Central Asian republic, went the good ole’ dictator’s way. They’ve started by banning the word coronavirus. Then, Radio Free Europe reported that plainclothes police officers were arresting people who wore face masks or mentioned the pandemic in public.

In the eyes of Turkmenistan, if people can’t talk about it, the problem isn’t there. But we already know this didn’t work out great in China.

The Middle East

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel‘s Prime Minister, stated that the country is at war with an invisible enemy, and it will use counter-terrorism technology to track virus carriers. For people who test positive, the security service will check their mobile phone records to see where they’ve been in the previous two weeks and inform people who were around them.

On the other hand, Iran launched a government-endorsed app, called AC19. It claims to help diagnose the coronavirus, but people noticed the app requests permission for real-time location data sharing.

Bahrain‘s Information & eGovernment Authority has the BeAware Bahrain app. It mitigates the spread of COVID-19 and keeps track of all active cases.

Europe

In France, two senators tabled an amendment authorizing telecom operators to collect health and location data. As a result, data generated by mobile phone users would have to be stored for six months. The amendment was defeated in the end. But telecom-to-government data transfers are allegedly happening on an ad-hoc basis.

In Belgium, drones are deployed in Brussels to enforce a curfew and social distancing rules. They also ensure no gatherings between more than two people are taking place.

In Russia, officials used the facial recognition camera from Moscow’s subway system. They also debated using QR codes for people to scan when going outside. Mobile operators are already on board with tracking users and sharing data with the government. These measures seem extreme, considering the low number of people infected. The whole situation prompted US and EU officials to accuse Russia of underreporting.

Even Iceland rolled out Rakning C-19. The app uses a phone’s GPS tracking capabilities to monitor a person’s whereabouts. If someone tests positive for the virus, the authorities can then notify anyone who’s been in contact with them.

Google also wants to pitch in with some location data mining. The company is looking to release COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, tracking if people are staying indoors.

But there are serious privacy concerns over these measures. And there’s no guarantee that the surveillance apparatus will be suddenly turned off once the threat of the pandemic is over, never to be seen again.

A look into the future

The COVID-19 pandemic is putting democratic systems to the test.

Surveillance is taking over in the name of tracking infections, and with an economic recession knocking on our doors, some countries might accept a lending hand from China.

But the questions remain.

Can we trust China’s aid as just that? With no ulterior motive or a hidden agenda?

Can we trust that those very systems put in place for our safety won’t be abused for political power in the future?

And can we trust that our private data won’t be exploited?

All proof seems to indicate the answer is a loud no.

You need to act now

We are now facing unprecedented levels of surveillance and data exploitation worldwide. But the pandemic is not an excuse to infringe on your right to privacy.

Your data is safe only in your hands. Mass surveillance must not become the new norm.

There are a lot of moments in the history of humankind when people in various regions have been controlled in a degrading and violent manner. Authoritarian regimes, slavery, and wars have always put our race in desperate situations, and our limited understanding of nature and medicine din not help at all with managing situations surrounding calamities and plagues.

The economic and political elites of today have turned thousands of years of history into the perfect training ground to create a new blueprint of mass manipulation and control. Plans on how to profit from a pandemic were already designed. A push of a button was the only thing missing. And the current technological and economic context already gave them all the weapons needed to profit from the misery of others.

However, the leaders of today have refined methods of control, which are subtle and deceiving. They can convince you that it is in your best interest to give up your freedom, your privacy, and your property. Maybe you’ll even end up feeling like they’re doing you a favor.

There is this old phrase saying “Scientia potentia est,” meaning “knowledge is power.” As the world is getting digitized and automated, the internet is now the centerpiece. So companies and governments are fighting over a coveted position: being the one legally allowed to collect and process data to control and dictate our future.

But we decided to fight against them, and also to give you the power to protect yourself.

Please take part in our collective effort to make the internet anonymous, so that everybody can enjoy freedom and stability in this digital era.

Gheorghe Ungureanu, Lead Architect at CyberGhost VPN

You need to act now.

Get in touch with your representatives

Worried about the measures being taken in your country?

Now’s the time to get more familiar with your state’s legislation and to write to the authorities. Ask for clarifications and demand for your rights to be respected.

Start petitions, file lawsuits, do what you legally can to make your voice heard.

Support organizations protecting your privacy rights

A lot of organizations out there promote democratic values and protect the freedom of speech and your right to anonymity. And you can bet they’re now closely monitoring how digital surveillance systems are promoted and implemented.

For example, Privacy International is tracking the global response to COVID-19.

 

Support your local NGOs

States of emergency are reflected differently across the world.

Your favorite local NGOs might suddenly be without funding. So, check-in with them and see if there’s anything you can do to continue fighting for their cause.

Support the freedom of the press

Reporters without borders claimed that the coronavirus might not have been a pandemic if China had had a free press.

It’s now more important than ever that politics don’t interfere with the narrative. And it’s an essential step to combat disinformation and fake news in these troubling times.

Free Press has released an emergency petition just for that purpose.

Use a VPN

Virtual Private Network software is a secure method to protect yourself from digital surveillance.

Your Internet Service Provider, the authorities, online services, third parties, and snoopers can usually track your digital footprint. Not when you use a good product.

If you need more guidance on this matter, we’re always here for you at CyberGhost VPN.

Use an antivirus

A good antivirus should provide you with a firewall or a network monitoring tool. This way, you can block unauthorized access to your system and get notifications for suspicious activity.

 

These coronavirus times are changing our lives in plenty of ways. But crises always come and go. So, do what you can to protect your privacy now, and don’t let any Big Brother move in with you.

Let me know what you think about this whole situation in the comments below.

 

Until next time, stay safe, secure, and healthy!

 
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