How parliaments can keep an eye on surveillance technology during COVID-19

Image of a CCTV camera

This post was first published on 26/11/2020.

Author: Franklin De Vrieze, Senior Governance Adviser at Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), and Alex Read, Democratic governance practitioner.

COVID-19 could affect a shift towards a surveillance culture. Once introduced, privacy-infringing technologies may be difficult to reverse. The next generation of digital technology and artificial intelligence could enable autocratic countries or those with weak democracies to identify and curb opposition. In democratic countries, there is a need for open discussion on how to prevent the emergence of a public-private surveillance state that compromises the fundamental right to privacy which is a bedrock of a functioning democracy. How parliaments address the concerns around increased surveillance and help to provide consensual solutions to challenges posed by new technologies may determine if they are seen as relevant in the modern age.

Technological changes

Pandemics have historically accelerated societal trends. The black death, for example, hastened in various technologies including clocks and the printing press in 14th and 15th century Europe. During COVID-19, technological breakthroughs such as maturation of machine learning, cloud computing, online data collection and improvements in microchips and hardware have underpinned methods to track infections, control lockdowns, and monitor public movement.

Contact tracing apps have been introduced in 140 countries or territories within countries and in some places – such as in India for all workers – they are mandatory. There are concerns that these apps could identify individuals and be open to manipulation.

QR codes and location data from smartphones have been used for location tracking. In Thailand and Malaysia QR scanning is a condition of entering shopping malls and schools.  In China, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, colour-coded, algorithm-enabled personal risk scores allow people to enter venues, public spaces or use transport, combining using health, location and travel history and other details The algorithms behind the codes is often opaque and their results difficult to challenge. In many other countries GPS location tracking and smartphone data is used to assess people’s location, with telecoms companies drawn upon to share data on an unprecedented scale.

Meanwhile, there have been reports in Israel of drones checking through windows on people who tested positive for the virus and in Tunisia,  widely-shared clips showed a ‘surveillance robot’ instructing a man on the street to “buy your tobacco, but be quick and go home.” Facial recognition has also been introduced at haste, with Russia reported to have deployed over 100,000 surveillance cameras to enforce self-isolation.

Data analytics and artificial intelligence

Some technological changes are likely to have long-lasting effects. The technology sector has increasingly been drawn upon to employ big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to predict how the pandemic will unfold and to guide policy decisions. Blue Dot and Palantir have used social media data to predict health risks, and Google, Facebook, and controversial start up Clearview AI have helped US government and state agencies to trace infected people and enforce isolation using location data mining or facial recognition. In the UK, Faculty has been given access to social media, utilities, telecoms and credit ratings data to improve government understanding of the impact of the virus and divert resources to where need is greatest.

What is more, surveillance has increasingly used biometric technology. Health sensors, facial recognition and remote temperature monitoring is taking place in China, where some officials have suggested the expansion of health tracking into areas such as sleep and smoking habits.

Towards a surveillance culture?

Surveillance technology can be key to enhancing virus preparedness and contributing to disaster risk reduction. However, in many cases these technologies have been introduced under emergency measures and the speed of uptake is likely to not only cross new technical boundaries but also raise ethical questions as citizens are monitored and personal data is collected.

Once introduced, technologies that infringe on our right to privacy may be difficult to reverse. This is particularly a risk in autocratic countries or those with weak or backsliding democracies. Digital technology and AI could enable such states to identify and curb signs of opposition. However, research has shown that use of surveillance technology does not depend on regime type.  Across democratic countries, COVID-19 has made it even more pressing to have an open discussion on preventing the emergence of a public-private surveillance state that compromises the fundamental right to privacy – a bedrock of a functioning democracy.

Parliaments stepping up scrutiny

In their law-making role, MPs will need to assess the new surveillance powers against human rights considerations and whether they are necessary and proportionate measures in a democratic society, looking at whether measures are time-bound, protect data privacy and have written details of sunset clauses, public oversight and other safeguards.

MPs should scrutinize the efficacy of measures being introduced and assess safeguards that are in place, asking if surveillance crosses lines of data privacy, do they ensure personal anonymity and is there transparency in how information is collected and used? MPs should ultimately assess whether some surveillance technologies should be off limit even if they are effective where they fundamentally compromise civil liberties. Parliamentary committees have a key role to play.

Changes in science and technology happen at a rapid pace, implying a steep learning curve for lawmakers. Support for digital literacy and training in ethics of technology such as AI will be increasingly important for law-makers world-wide. MPs will require information on how different forms of technology function, their opportunities and risks, and awareness of related regulations and standards on issues including privacy, the uses of personal data, and decision-making using algorithms. Parliamentary staff will require more advanced skills, including in accessing and analysing relevant data sets.  

Call for democratic checks

Technology has vast potential to support COVID-19 response and economic recovery. However, when introduced without democratic checks, public understanding, and engagement, it may erode trust in institutions of representative democracy to keep pace with change that affect the lives of all people. How parliaments hear and address the public’s concerns around increased surveillance, debate and consider its implications and help to provide consensual solutions to problems that arise may determine how they are seen as relevant in the modern age. With crises there are opportunities, and the hope is that the pandemic will allow parliaments to re-examine their ways of working, becoming more dynamic in enhancing oversight and civil participation as two keystones of good governance.

This is the fourth blogpost in a series discussing to what extent COVID-19 emergency powers constitute a threat to democracy. The series emerges from the recent digital conference co-organized by the Institute of Advanced legal Studies of the University of London and Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). This blog is by Franklin De Vrieze, Senior Governance Adviser at WFD, and Alex Read, democratic governance practitioner. To join the conversation on Twitter, use the hashtag #COVIDDemocracy.

To declare an emergency or not to declare an emergency? That is not the question

Parliamentary Committees: windows into the world of COVID-19 legislation and its impact

From anti-terrorism legislation to COVID emergency laws: can sunset clauses live up to their promise?


Franklin De Vrieze, Senior Governance Adviser at Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), and Alex Read, Democratic governance practitioner.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy