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Snowden warns about authorities exploiting pandemic to increase surveillance, track individuals

'The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it.'
Fri Apr 3, 2020 - 12:04 pm EST
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Edward Snowden speaks remotely at WIRED25 Festival, October 14, 2018 in San Francisco, California. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25

April 3, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – A former contractor for the CIA has warned that surveillance measures many governments around the world are using, or at least proposing to use in the name of combating the coronavirus, could end up becoming a permanent reality of life.

Speaking out about this concern is Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor, who famously leaked secrets about the US intelligence agency's spying programs in 2013.

Snowden expressed his concerns in a March 23 video interview with the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. The topic of the conversation was the use of artificial intelligence in the age of the coronavirus. 

In the video interview, Snowden said that when governments are granted new powers to track individuals under the guise of an emergency, “they tend to be sticky.” 

“The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it,” he added.

Snowden became famous after he leaked highly classified government secrets in 2013 from the US National Security Agency. In 2019, he wrote a book, Permanent Record, which has become a bestseller worldwide, detailing the inner workings of his former employer. He remains in exile in Russia. 

In the interview, Snowden gave a scenario of how the governments could be inclined to use existing fitness trackers popular with many today, to issue government orders demanding access to personal medical data such as a person's heart rate stored on the device. 

Snowden suggested that this could feasibly be done under the guise of protecting everyone’s health to combat the coronavirus. However, many years down the road this technology could be left in place, much like the extra security precautions seen around the world after the September 11 terrorist attacks, which remain in place today. 

Snowden remarked how the possibility of using this type of data while incorporating artificial intelligence into the mix is a concerning scenario. 

“What happens now when we start to put these authorities together and remix them. They already know what you’re looking at on the internet, right, they already know where your phone is moving, now they know what your heart rate is, your pulse is. What happens when they start to intermix these and apply artificial intelligence to it.” 

As the coronavirus epidemic spreads across the globe, the Wall Street Journal reported that US government officials, by the way of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are using the location information from the cellphones of Americans. This is being done so that they can “better understand the movements of Americans during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Yesterday, Alphabet’s Google division released location data for 131 countries that reveal whether people are obeying quarantine rules and could help authorities check lockdowns. 

In Canada, reports surfaced last week that the federal government has not ruled out using Canadians cell phone location data to track people's movements during the coronavirus epidemic.  Pro-abortion Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not specifically rule this idea out, saying that “all options are on the table.”

Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, told Global News this week that while not the “Canadian way,” using personal data to monitor Canada’s population is not out of the question.

“These things become very George Orwell, 1984. It’s remarkably similar in that way. We worry that this pandemic would be the thin edge of the wedge to introduce these types of things. That is a concern,” Bowman said. 

In the United Kingdom, reports have surfaced that the government through its National Health Service (NHS), is in the preparation stages to release a tracking app to alert people if they come too close into contact with someone who has the coronavirus. This app is planned to be released after the nationwide lockdown has been lifted. 

While the UK app will be opt-in only at this point, it highlights Snowden’s remarks that once the door has been opened to further erode one’s freedoms in the name of a health crisis, it remains uncertain what will happen after it has ended. 

In response to news about the NHS app, a group of “responsible technologists” put out an open letter which warned that the UK  government could use this type of technology “as a means of social control.” 

Because of this, they have asked that:  “Any technology initiatives put in place now to suppress Coronavirus must protect human rights, be proportionate and work within the rule of law — not least because they will set the template for what comes next in the delivery of health services in the UK.”

Today, China uses thermal scanners at various locations to identify which of its citizens have fevers. Russia is using a type of facial recognition software to ensure that individuals under quarantine are not breaking the rules.


  1984, coronavirus, edward snowden, george orwell, google, location data, police state, surveillance

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