Covid is ushering in a surveillance state that may never be dismantled

Coronavirus â   Mon May 4, 2020 

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appForgive me if I do not entirely share the enthusiasm for downloading an app to my mobile phone that will potentially let the state track and trace my movements. While I will probably consider it a civic duty to do so in the current crisis, it is hard to believe it is even necessary to voice scepticism.

Is the “new normal” to be a surveillance society, with tracing apps and facial recognition health passports? The Government insists not; but if we are hit by a second wave of Covid-19, the temptation to extend the monitoring will be hard to resist.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appThen again, if it means we can get back to something approaching normality, does anyone care? After all, don’t we trust our governments to make the right choices and not arrogate too much power to themselves?

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appWe are not as suspicious of the state and its agencies as others are in Europe for reasons of recent history. Research conducted by the global communications firm Edelman shows that trust in government has reached record levels here and is rising higher and faster than elsewhere.

Brits are also more willing to sacrifice freedom and privacy if it helps stop the virus. More than half say they are prepared to cede information about their health and even their location to the Government to help track and contain the disease. In any case, I hear you say, which sensible person would not join a nationwide effort to defeat the contagion? Not to do so is irresponsible, reckless and unpatriotic.

I might take that view myself were we dealing with the bubonic plague or a pestilence that killed every other person who contracted it. But the mortality rate for Covid-19 is low. The Government’s health advisers have said from the outset that for the vast majority of people this is a mild disease.

This is not to understate the appalling toll of deaths among vulnerable people in care homes, who should have been better protected, or those with other health problems that reduce immunity. Tragically, there are also some who have died who, to all intents and purposes, appeared fit and healthy yet still succumbed.

But the aim of the lockdown was not to avoid illness and death since that is not possible when a pandemic hits. It was intended to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, not to put the entire nation into a state of panic-stricken paralysis. As Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, told the Commons health select committee today, nothing we do next will be risk free.

With 27 million people now on the state payroll and economic disaster looming, we will look back and ask whether the response was proportionate to the threat. This does not just apply to the economic measures but to civil liberties. We all know there is a trade-off between health and freedom (as with the ban on smoking in public places) but it has to be measured against the risks and the Government needs to spell out in terms what they are.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appFor the Covid-19 “test-contact-and-trace” app to be fully effective, the Government says 60 per cent of the population needs to sign up. If you remove the millions who do not have a smart phone, this requires 80 per cent of those of us who do own one to participate.

The argument for doing so needs to be overwhelming. The app needs to work for a start and trials are underway on the Isle of Wight to see if it does. Whitehall’s record with IT projects is woeful so it may turn out to have been a costly error not to have opted for an off-the-peg alternative.

There is also a freedom dimension here which should not be brushed aside. Ministers say that personal information will not be kept on the app and it is “anonymised”. But it will be held on a central database and anonymised is not the same as anonymous because the sender can always be identified.

Countries like Germany have entrusted their app to a third party, Google and Apple, rather than develop a state-run system. We have chosen to go down the centralised route because the NHS believes the information gathered will be useful for future planning. Why?

With the non-state versions, the encrypted data expires after 21 days but our Government wants to keep it. Are we happy with that? Also, by adopting a different system, British citizens may be prevented from travelling abroad. How long before companies demand the app is downloaded as a condition of employment?

Practicality is also an issue. The app uses Bluetooth technology to alert the owner to their recent proximity to someone who has subsequently developed coronavirus symptoms and has informed the authorities of the illness. The people contacted will be urged to go into quarantine or have a test.

This might work in places like the Isle of Wight, but you can imagine how impractical it is going to be on the London Underground. Within days of returning to work you could have dozens of alerts forcing you to take time off once again. That could happen every time you board a train. What if some people claim to be ill just for the hell of it?

I appreciate that we are in the realms of nudge here. If we feel safer downloading the app and are made to wear a face mask perhaps we will have greater confidence to face the risk, especially those of us in less vulnerable health and age groups.

On the eve of VE Day we are invited to compare the battle against the virus with the war, even to the point of a communal doorstep rendition of We’ll Meet Again. Ministers like to congratulate the country on its stoicism for staying indoors as though this in any way replicates the sacrifices of the wartime generation. But it is the opposite of putting ourselves at risk. It is hiding from it.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appThose working on the medical front-line have shown real heroism by placing themselves in harm’s way. The rest of us now need to play our part, go back to work and get the country moving again – armed with our tracing app if that makes us feel safer. But we should not be surprised to discover that within the space of a few weeks, this crisis has ushered in a surveillance society that will never be dismantled.