In a time of anxiety and insecurity, caused by a global pandemic, we should all try to sift through the noise and pay attention to real life Cassandras. Academics, intellectuals, privacy experts and activists have started to warn us about the normalization of mass surveillance spurred by the Coronavirus pandemic. Our privacy has never been in a more fragile, precarious state.
Think I may be exaggerating, overstating things? The “real life Cassandras” I mentioned are the likes of Naomi Klein (author of The Shock Doctrine and No Logo), NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and writer Yuval Noah Harari (best known for his bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus).
This is not a drill. We must all pay close attention to what is happening right under our noses.
The New Cassandras
For the past month, I felt like I’ve been channelling the mythological character of Cassandra.
If you need a refresher on Greek Mythology, Cassandra was the daughter of the King of Troy. The God Apollo fell in love with her and gave her the gift of prophecy. However, when Cassandra turned down Apollo’s advances, he put a curse on her: she could keep her gift of predicting future events… but nobody would ever believe her.
I say I felt like Cassandra because I’ve studied closely the spread of Coronavirus in my home country of Italy: my family is there and I visit Lombardy often. I observed the situation, with a heavy heart and lots of anxiety, from my apartment in France. I felt as if I had been given a crystal ball, being able to anticipate what may happen here, too. I began stocking up on food and essentials when nobody in France was doing so. I called my French and expat friends urging them to prepare as well: nobody seemed ready and they reacted to my warnings with a mix of shock and surprise. The most common refrain I heard was that “I was exaggerating” and being “too pessimistic.” Nobody I talked to had any significant stocks of food, as they thought France was “far more advanced than Italy” in every regard and the situation here “couldn’t possibly become that bad”, mirroring Lombardy. I had a feeling they were beginning to see me as annoying and overtly negative. But I kept issuing them warnings and telling them France was approximately 10-15 days behind Italy, so they should really prepare. And sure enough, the school closings arrived. Restaurants and public places shut down without much warning. And then the mandatory quarantine was put in place.
What I found most interesting is that these very same people who didn’t believe me when I was warning them with a heads-up of 2 weeks, began exhibiting the same sense of urgency I had shown when I was being – according to them – “too pessimistic”. It’s as if they had forgotten my early warnings, like a case of instant amnesia. They could only focus on the present: they couldn’t remember what I had said 2 weeks prior… and still they wouldn’t believe my warnings regarding the future and things that may happen, based on the situation in Italy. Insert shrugging emoji.
Why am I sharing this story? Because this experience has shown me what it’s like to be a real life Cassandra. And there is another problem we should all pay attention to, as it threatens our way of living and our privacy: the normalization of mass surveillance spurred by the Coronavirus pandemic. To understand this problem, we need to rewind and go back to 2007 and the release of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. What Klein explained in her book is the blueprint of what is happening today.
The Shock Doctrine & Coronavirus
In this recent video writer Naomi Klein revisits her book “The Shock Doctrine” in light of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Klein explains:
Thirteen years ago I wrote a book called ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism’. It described a brutal and recurring tactic by right wing governments: after a shocking event – a war, coup, terrorist attack, market crash or natural disaster – they exploit the public’s disorientation, suspend democracy, push through radical free market policies that enrich the 1% at the expense of the poor and middle class.
We are starting to see The Shock Doctrine tactics being applied while the public is distracted and anxious over the Coronavirus outbreak.
Here is a headline from a news story about the United States, from 5 days ago: “The CDC would set up a coronavirus ‘surveillance and data collection system’ as part of the Senate’s $2 trillion stimulus bill.” The article explains that:
Of the funding allocated to the CDC, the bill sets aside at least $500 million for public health data surveillance and modernizing the analytics infrastructure. The CDC must report on the development of a “surveillance and data collection system” within the next 30 days. While it’s not clear what form that surveillance system will take, the federal government has reportedly expressed interest in aggregating data that can be gleaned from tech platforms and smartphone use to monitor movement patterns.
In an article in the Irish Times, journalist Jennifer O’Connell explains that many countries around the world have already introduced Orwellian, mass surveillance technology in light of Coronavirus:
In South Korea, when someone is diagnosed, potential contacts get a text alert allowing them to click through for more details about their movements. China’s Alipay Health Code, a subsidiary of Alibaba, uses a traffic light system to instruct people when they can go out or have to stay in. No explanation required or given: just a green, yellow or red code. The system also reportedly sends information to the police. In Hong Kong, foreigners arriving into the country are issued with tracking bracelets. Israel is mobilising the country’s domestic security agency to track people potentially infected with the virus.
All over the world, another red line is being washed away. Covid-19 is helping to normalise to mass government surveillance of citizens.
NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has reacted warning us that “The surveillance states we’re creating now will outlast the coronavirus.”
Tracking people’s movements via their cell phones is just the start. The next step could be gathering and analyzing our biometric data. Why is this problematic?
Bestselling writer Yuval Noah Harari explains:
If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse they can […] not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want – be it a product or a politician.
I understand this may be a little too gloomy, but as Naomi Klein says: “What my research has taught me [is that] shocks and crises don’t always go the Shock Doctrine path.”
In this excellent article by Buzzfeed News, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said:
People like to say, ‘well, we need to strike a balance between protecting public health and safeguarding privacy’ — but that is genuinely the wrong way to think about it. You really want both. And if you’re not getting both, there’s a problem with the policy proposal.
Staying alert and informed is a crucial first step in combating the normalization of mass surveillance.
And if you want to go a few steps further, here are some actionable items that you could do right now.
What are 3 simple things you could do today to increase your privacy?
- get a Faraday bag for your smartphone, which cuts off all signal. I wrote about this in the post: “Life Under Surveillance Capitalism: Act Like a Spy“
- if you haven’t already, block your computer’s, phone’s and tablet’s front facing cameras (tape will do, you don’t need a fancy accessory)
- understand the dangers of mass surveillance by reading Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism“
- bonus points: you could always deactivate or delete your Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp accounts. I did it and never looked back
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