The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the attrition of individual liberties, as pro-democracy groups recently warned in a Call to Defend Democracy.
Data collected by Samuel Woodhams of Top10VPN, a digital privacy group, shows that as of July 2020, 50 countries had introduced contact tracing apps, 35 had adopted alternative digital tracking measures, 11 had implemented advanced physical surveillance technologies, and 18 had imposed censorship related to covid-19. Many of the countries using these techniques are democracies, notes Steven Feldstein, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the world was in the midst of an autocratic resurgence. Researchers from the Varieties of Democracy project estimate that 2.6 billion people, or 35% of the world’s population, are having their political liberties curtailed, he writes for the MIT Technology Review:
My own research suggests that most of these regimes would pursue anti-democratic digital strategies even without Russia’s and China’s help. All the same, there is reason to worry about the growing global spread of Chinese technology such as Huawei 5G networks, Transsion mobile phones, and WeChat for e-commerce and communication. Not only does this increase global reliance on Chinese technology, thereby enhancing China’s influence, but many products, such as WeChat’s social app or Alipay Health Code (which classifies users’ health status and determines whether they are allowed to travel or enter certain public spaces), are designed to facilitate government surveillance and censorship.
As Christopher Walker, Shanthi Kalathil, and Jessica Ludwig wrote in the NED’s Journal of Democracy, Feldstein adds: “The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has been forging an increasingly seamless synthesis combining consumer convenience, surveillance, and censorship. This model is exemplified by such all-encompassing platforms as WeChat … which includes politically based content restrictions and lends itself to surveillance.”