Yuval Harari, historian and author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, has written an opinion in The Financial Times and everybody, especially politicians, should read it, as it is vital that we do not give up on our democratic rights even in a time of crisis. He says: In this time of crisis, we face two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. Below are some of the main points on the first part. But read it all here.
To stop the Corona epidemic, populations need to comply with certain guidelines. There are two main ways of achieving this, Harari starts: One is for the government to monitor people, and punish those who break the rules. Another is trust and individual empowerment.
The first method is deployed by China.
“By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected corona virus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.”
This kind of technology is not limited to east Asia, he writes, and points at his own government Israel. These new ways of monitoring citizens’ temperature and medical condition – that is biometrics – is a very dangerous step to take, according to Harari.
“As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a biometric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The resulting data is hoarded and analysed by government algorithms. The algorithms will know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also know where you have been, and who you have met. The chains of infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether. Such a system could arguably stop the epidemic in its tracks within days. Sounds wonderful, right?”
He believes it would be a ‘new terrifying surveillance system’.
“If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age.”
“You could, of course, make the case for biometric surveillance as a temporary measure taken during a state of emergency. It would go away once the emergency is over. But temporary measures have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon,” he writes.
Solution: Empower People
The root problem of this is to ask people to choose between privacy and health. He believes it is a false choice and that we could have both, if we did not chose to institute totalitarian surveillance regimes, but in stead chose to empower citizens. He points to South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.
“While these countries have made some use of tracking applications, they have relied far more on extensive testing, on honest reporting, and on the willing co-operation of a well-informed public,” he writes.
“When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.”
“But to achieve such a level of compliance and co-operation, you need trust. People need to trust science, to trust public authorities, and to trust the media.”
And it is not too late, he believes and concludes:
“The corona virus epidemic is a major test of citizenship. In the days ahead, each one of us should choose to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians. If we fail to make the right choice, we might find ourselves signing away our most precious freedoms, thinking that this is the only way to safeguard our health.”