COVID-19 has allowed countries to ramp up digital police states

In efforts to battle the disease, some nations are employing high-tech solutions with worrying implications for civil liberties.

Kiran Ridley/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In addition to the overwhelming public health issues posed by COVID-19, the deadly respiratory disease is now becoming a menacing threat to civil liberties. As The Wall Street Journal points out, the global high-tech sector is trying to offer solutions for the pandemic. But watchdogs for civil rights protections warn that this global health crisis is ripe for manipulation and exploitation by politicians and governments that, if unchecked, could crack down on civilians and erode their privacy under the guise of protecting them.

Drones, robots, and QR codes — China, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and other countries have turned to a mix of big data, drones, artificial intelligence, chatbots, and security cameras to tackle COVID-19. In some of the instances, as detailed by the WSJ, drones are being used to spray disinfectant on hot spots in South Korea. Meanwhile, Chinese police officers along with unmanned aerial vehicles have been equipped with thermal helmets and goggles to spot civilians with high fevers, and Singaporean citizens have been asked to use QR codes to reveal their locations and health status to authorities.

Australia is using chatbots to field questions about the coronavirus, but the success rate of the measure as preventative is questionable. In Shanghai, China, the doors of quarantined individuals' houses are now equipped with digital alarms that alert the local police about any "unauthorized" movement by those affected, while in Beijing subway officials now use an algorithm and facial recognition software to single out commuters who don't have masks on.

There are better approaches — It goes without saying that big tech and artificial intelligence can help with containing the coronavirus spread. They can do this by educating people about its nature, trajectory, fatality rates among different groups, and what they can do to protect themselves against it while also being transparent.

But ramping up surveillance tactics, obsessively tracking people's movements, censoring information about COVID-19's outbreak, singling out affected individuals, and other approaches all make for bleak and dystopian reading. The war on terror showed us how bad policies can be pushed in the face of fear. It's crucial we don't let the same bulldozing of our rights happen under the banner of a government-mandated greater good.