A major increase in state surveillance is a “price worth paying” to beat the coronavirus, according to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI).
The UK think tank founded by the former prime minister, says it could offer an “escape route” from the crisis.
In a report, the Institute says there should be a “digital credential” to help lift lockdown restrictions. It would be a type of digital certificate that could identify those who have immunity to the virus and are fit to return to work, though it notes an alternative would be necessary for those without a smartphone.
The report also argues that the public must accept a level of intrusion that would normally “be out of the question in liberal democracies”.
The Guardian reports: Governments and private companies can use location data to track the success of lockdown measures, monitor bluetooth signals to help contact tracing efforts, or keep an eye on search queries to help identify new clusters of infection or previously unknown symptoms.
Privacy activists have warned, however, that such extensions of surveillance could be a dangerous precedent that would be hard to roll back once the crisis is over.
The TBI argues in the report published on Friday that those fears are valid, but understate the degree of trade-off that many countries face.
“Carefully applied, technology gives policymakers a possible way through the crisis that reduces otherwise very high costs in terms of lives lost and livelihoods destroyed,” said Chris Yiu, the institute’s executive director of technology and public policy. “But this escape route comes with a price: dramatically increased technological surveillance. Under the right conditions, this is a price worth paying.
“In normal times the degree of monitoring and state intervention we are talking about here would be out of the question in liberal democracies,” Yiu continued. “But these are not normal times, and the alternatives are even more unpalatable. This is quite different from the traditional debate about whether confronting security threats to our way of life merits sacrificing the values of freedom and privacy that define us.
“Covid-19 is not an ideology, and rebalancing the contract between citizens and the state to take advantage of the capabilities of new technologies is not capitulation.”
As a result, governments should consider a number of interventions that might normally cross the line, Yiu said. For instance, states could require technology platforms to share, in aggregate form, search and social media trends, and telemetry from wearables and other connected devices, to help them respond to the crisis. And they could share patient data internationally, to accelerate the search for treatments and vaccines, rather than putting up walls around national health services as they would in normal times.