Logged-in democracies: digital autocracy and invasive surveillance practices in liberal regimes.

When it comes to the impact of authoritarian sharp power on the future of democracy, perhaps no other domain is as pivotal as that of technology

(Walker, et. al 2020).

The ubiquitous pandemic crisis became a shortcut for normalising and institutionalising digital autocratic practices in the majority of states. In the wake of the pandemic, the interplay between cutting-edge technologies and the government paved the way for power consolidation within the digital domain both by autocrats and democrats. It is estimated that around 30 countries employed various surveillance-driven programs in response to COVID-19 (Gershgsorn, 2020). And at least, 47 contact-tracing apps are available in the world (Morley et. al., 2020). Manifold efforts invigorated debate around the illiberal nature of surveillance methods, their efficacy, data privacy issues, as well as infringement of fundamental human rights, especially in Western democracies. It is high time to acknowledge that the unfolding fight between liberal democracies and digital authoritarian practices determines the Twenty-First Century and this results in harmful implications for the Western democracies.

Digital surveillance B.C. = before coronavirus.

The cohort of ‘digital autocrats’ has emerged prior to COVID-19 struck and was mainly attributed to those conventional autocratic states, who altered the way of public control with the advent of digital innovations. These are known as ‘information autocrats’, the soft dictators whose tool-kit of control does not rest solely on the ideology, bloody, and violent murders. Their brutal authoritarian strategies were substituted with more sophisticated methods of surveillance and propaganda to mimic a relevant degree of democracy elements, detect troublemakers, and disempower opponents (Guriev and Treisman, 2019: 3-7). However, the modern history elucidates that Beijing, Iran, and Moscow turned out to be not the only players at the backyard fully equipped with the CCTVs.

AI-powered surveillance rituals are virtuously enacted in most of the liberal regimes and became a normalized feature of daily political life (Gunitsky, 2020). France, the UK, and the US are also culpable for the proliferation of implementing video surveillance and geolocation spyware (Feldstein, 2020). According to the Global Expansion of AI Surveillance report produced by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as of 2019 liberal advanced democracies constitute the majority of AI surveillance solutions’ consumers, amounting to 51%. Those range from facial recognition, predictive policing, border control to smart cities (Feldstein, 2019).   Most of the dataveillance practices have been designed and actively utilized by the cohort of ‘GAFAM’ over the last decade. These activities propelled the emergence of ‘capitalistic surveillance’, the notion analysed by Shoshana Zuboff in her illuminating book ‘The age of surveillance capitalism”. The big tech market of capitalistic democracies systematically invigilates over users to establish dominance and control over society and predict their behaviour for their economic benefit (Zuboff, 2019). Once the virus outbreak hit the globe these surveillance conditions have been only exacerbated. As the implication of this, the line between autocrats and democracies is gradually becoming even more blurred, when it comes to digital surveillance.

“Disinfected” surveillance practices in action: pros and cons.

Have being driven by the idea of containing the surge of the virus, policy-makers succumbed to the lure of various quasi-punitive measures, among which intrusive digital surveillance turned out to be one of the most wide-spread (Heisbourg, 2020). In the fight against the pandemic, various forms of systematic and strict controlling practices over citizens’ movements were embraced by governments. While China grants red, yellow, or green codes to its citizens, the liberal regimes with their strong privacy regulations found watchful lenses of autocrats extremely appealing (Gerstell, 2020 Brussels deployed drones to police deserted streets, and Italy followed Belgium’s example to ensure social distancing on the streets. Australia enforced people to wear surveillance devices, Norway is also actively using tracing apps. The United Kingdom is tracking citizens with the help of communication companies (Gershgorn, 2020; Holroyd, 2020). While in France the data flow between telecommunications companies to government takes place on an ad hoc basis (Manancourt, 2020).

Nonetheless, COVID-related surveillance tools come at a price. One of the most worrying outcomes of the pandemic crisis is the strengthened role of the government as a conventional shield from external threats (Heisbourg, 2020). Most of those extended powers will be cemented in the post-coronavirus world, even if the threats fade away (Crabtree, Kaplan, et. al., 2020). The coronavirus crisis not only led to the consolidation of digital powers but also invited new players, such as public health authorities. The debate now is shaped by the medical sector as well, and this will demand more surveillance to avert potential pandemic threat (Schneier, 2020). The major concern is that normalised intrusive practices the democratic governments are bent on will become another nail in the coffin of democratic values, privacy, and effectiveness of government accountability, according to experts from the Oxford Internet Institute and Institute for Economics and Peace. Even if the vaccine is developed, the risk of not getting back to rigorous privacy criteria remains high (Elks, 2020). Ultimately, the unparalleled capabilities of AI-driven tools reconfigure patterns of governance and delegitimise democratic discourse (Feldstein, 2019). Needless to say, that turbulent times have always been a convenient pretext for extension of powers, especially for democracies. The case of the World War II serves as hard evidence, throughout which Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were ‘blessed’ by their citizens to acquire new powers, while this normally would not be a case during the peacetime (Heisbourg, 2020). COVID-19 became another springtime for power extension, which found its reflection in illiberal surveillance practices executed by authorities of liberal regimes.

A possible decline in a democracy is one complication. Human rights and data privacy are in jeopardy as well. Alongside the whole efficacy of tracing apps and transparency of the decision-making process around the surveillance should be questioned too. Deployment of surveillance technologies and new regulations, such as CCTV, biometric system, and now – the newly emerged tracing-apps, has always been a feature of defense and security policy-making in times of crisis. Nonetheless, the appeal of employing surveillance methods does not always rely on its cost-efficiency and effectiveness. The decisions to adopt digital solutions do not always rest upon the statistically-driven results and scientific analysis.  Instead, policy-makers are rather directed by the sense of fear (e.g. fear of crime or terrorism) and insecurity perceptions which ultimately ‘legitimises’ decisions on introducing new security and surveillance policies. Adopted measures do not necessarily translate into subtle and feasible results, while allocated budget and policies are not amended accordingly. Guided by fear of crimes proliferation CCTV cameras across the UK were widely installed. In the 9/11 realm aviation security became another victim, and the security system was altered dramatically. However, in both cases, the evidence for the cost-effectiveness’ proportionality of the introduced measures was insufficient to conclude that digital solutions were the silver-bullet fix (IRISS, 2013). And it is already explicit that the pandemic realm also shapes new surveillance standards, the cost-effectiveness of which has not been proved yet, while the political appeal is highly valued among elites.

The health agencies and policymakers were deluded by the unproven success of tracing-apps for public health and expect that over-reliance on insecure and authoritarian surveillance techniques yields the absolute victory over the pandemic. However, we should be mindful of the inherent limitations of newly introduced contact-tracing apps. Researches from the Brookings Institution stress that the coverage with smartphones remains to be partial in most of the countries, which means apps will not equip policymakers with the accurate picture of exposure incidents (Soltani et. al, 2020) in the whole world, reaching almost 40%, – still has not proven its efficacy and technology ‘wasn’t a gamma changer’. It failed to replace classical approaches, such as manual tracing which proved to be more helpful in halting the virus spread (Johnson, 2020). Besides, the most vulnerable group of people, elderly or poorly-resourced might not be techy enough to navigate themselves through the apps. We should also keep in mind that tracing-apps were also tailored for upholding public health and virus containment in mind, not safeguarding the individual’s rights. Hence, this creates an incentivize dilemma for individuals who should sacrifice their freedom, socialising, and data privacy for the sake of public security (Soltani et. al, 2020).

Sustainable democratic surveillance. Work in progress.

The post-COVID-19-world is no longer a ‘Tale of Two Surveillance Cities’. We should harbour no illusions that surveillance and dataveillance programs are associated exclusively with nondemocratic states. The pandemic and public health became another green light for revitalizing surveillance tools in democracies. Health-driven surveillance powers will likely remain in place in the liberal regimes, the way those were extended EU-wide in 2015-2017 or right after the 9/11 attacks (Manancourt, 2020). We should learn from the past. In the post-Snowden realm, government accountability has not been enhanced dramatically. In response to emerged challenges, relative progress was achieved on the reforming route of private data sharing. The promising EU GDPR and 2016 IPA were adopted, yet even the most robust democracies have not abolished extra powers and gone ahead with entrenching their digital monitoring boundaries. The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, and France put forward new legislation that broadened their surveillance horizons. Meanwhile, insufficient public awareness of the surveillance debate eventually disempowered citizens and forced them to passively accept new digital global norms. Thus, the lack of debate on how the digital civic rights and freedoms are systematically infringed alongside the decline of government accountability to its citizens translates into a pivot towards acceptance of authoritarian practices in the liberal environment (Hintz and Milan, 2018).

The rapid proliferation of surveillance methods in democracies can be justified if certain conditions pre-exist. Particularly, there should be a morally acceptable ground (e.g. protection of citizens against devastating healthcare crisis), and the element of accountability, which is normally not observed in dictatorial systems. Surveillance in the Western democracies should not serve the political interests of a small group, while citizens should be empowered to oversee surveillance as well (IRISS: 22). More importantly, a competitive appealing model of democratic digital governance and surveillance should be compliant with the law, cost-effective, non-discriminatory, and adequate equilibrium between data privacy and public security should be maintained in the heart of surveillance design in democratic states.

In the end, policy-makers should not place too much hope on technology and confine themselves solely to mushrooming apps as the only relevant method in curbing the future virus outbreak. The establishment of the XXI century version of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon can only contribute to an erosion of the democratic values, and undermine the constitutional civil rights. Yet those will never replace effective testing, the good infrastructure of the hospitals, but more importantly, surveillance will never substitute the competency and professionalism of the decision-makers.



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Written by Victoria Chumenko