ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Epidemic and Infectious Disease Surveillance

Rise of the Security–Military Framework

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen some Asian countries employ sophisticated mass-surveillance technologies—normally employed to gather intelligence for domestic security purposes—to contain the spread of infection in their populations. There has also been an intrusion of military and allied national security actors into the traditionally civilian domain of public health, in the form of disease surveillance. These emerging developments in the pandemic response provide a pretext for a limited historical review, beginning from World War II to the present, centred on the intersection between infectious disease surveillance and control, national security, and military in the Western world.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been the single most disruptive event, unprecedented in its impact on almost every major domain, from public health to the economy and environment, since World War II. A global phenomenon of this scale is viewed as a harbinger of epochal change in numerous domains, and spawns countless speculations and apprehensions about the not-so-distant future, that is, the post-pandemic era. From the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments employed digital real-time remote surveillance technologies as part of the spectrum of emergency measures employed in outbreak control in their respective populations. A concern was that deployment of these new sophisticated mass-surveillance tools, often provisionally sanctioned under extraordinary legal powers, would continue indefinitely, even after the pandemic was brought under control (Harari 2020). The technologies, meant for contact tracing and location-tracking, included smartphone apps using bluetooth and the global positioning system (GPS), quick response (QR) codes, facial-recognition software and others. With the help of data mining, artificial intelligence and machine learning, government agencies could constantly monitor movements of persons known or suspected to have contracted the virus. This was done in order to ensure strict compliance with isolation or quarantine protocols, as well as to identify potential contacts and, in the long run, establish virus transmission chains and identify emerging hotspots.

Aided by a favourable legal regime and highly wired society, some governments, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, China, and Israel, were getting access to digital footprints of their citizens through smartphone apps and credit/debit card transaction records. In Russia, closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras with facial-recognition software were being used. The Israeli government had granted its domestic security agencythe Shin Betunrestricted access to a vast pool of geolocation data of millions of Israeli cellphone users. These confidential data, usually gathered from cellphone providers for counterterrorism measures, were repurposed for outbreak control efforts (Silverstein 2020). In the West, both the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US) health departments signed expensive contracts with Palantir, a secretive big-data analytics firm from Silicon Valley that had earlier collaborated with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other US national security agencies, and infamously assisted the immigration department under the Donald Trump administration in the separation of migrant families and arrests of undocumented migrants (Howden et al 2021). The US governments, both federal and state, also began a similar dialogue with Clearview AI, a controversial facial recognition start-up that provided software to law enforcement agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to track down criminals. Google, Apple and other big tech firms have lately ventured into creating similar tracking software (Calvo et al 2020).

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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