Liberty in a time of Pandemic

In 1817, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We are now in a global crisis that puts this mantra into stark relief. In the name of preventing the spread of the virus massive quarantines are being enacted all over the world with many countries enforcing it with the army, police and huge fines. But quarantine isn’t the only threat to liberty in these times in the UK, private companies are working with the NHS (National Health Service) are gaining access to domestic health records to develop a data analytics platform[1] while multiple countries are experimenting with or deploying cellphone tracking to help control virus spread[2][3] while US and Chinese tech companies are exploring a massive release of their users location data[4][5]. Meanwhile in Europe, America and Australia many countries are only just starting to recommend their citizens go into self quarantine.

The most extreme response is in China where the outbreak originated, where CCTV has been installed outside the homes of infected individuals[6] and remotely piloted drones warn people to wear masks and stay inside[5]. But Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea have also implemented similarly extreme forms of data tracking[6].

The data, assuming it’s accurate, speaks for itself though. China and South Korea have seen a massive drop in new infection rates. As a necessary cost for preventing mass deaths due to Coronavirus, health professionals are recommending that our liberty must be temporarily reduced. We cannot be free if we are dead. Virginia Woolf said it best. “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Our minds must be more free and vigilant than ever in monitoring for tyranny.

In response to this direct threat to liberty, the emergency powers granted to the state must be laid down when this crisis has abated. But we are under no pretensions that worldwide governments take up these emergency powers with a heavy heart.

Using the global pandemic as a distraction, a new assault has begun on privacy and encryption. Under the cover of “preventing child abuse” a new US bill from the Five Countries Ministerial (also known as 5 Eyes Spying Alliance) is looking to strip legal protections for tech companies which do not observe “best practice”, a code of conduct which is developed by the 5 Eyes agencies outside of the process of democratic or legislative review. We are deeply suspicious that a meta-governmental organisation that describes itself as the “pre-eminent forum for collaboration among the five countries on domestic security issues” such as “counter-terrorism, countering violent extremism, cyber security, countering foreign interference, protecting critical infrastructure, border management and law enforcement” would find it in its scope to deal with child abuse material.

Yet the Australian government is pushing for similarly troublesome privacy breaches. Just a fortnight ago, submissions opened for an amendment to our telecommunications legislation to allow foreign agencies to spy on Australian citizens, on Australian soil[9]. In the 12 years of the Pirate Party in Australia, this is perhaps the most blatantly problematic breach of privacy and due process we’ve seen. Pirate Party Australia is preparing a submission recommending most strongly the amendment be discarded, and we consider the government utilising this time of crisis to rush through unpopular bills to be dishonest and undemocratic. Individuals wishing to contribute to the Party submission are invited to reach out to [email protected]

1. https://www.businessinsider.com.au/amazon-microsoft-palantir-nhs-coronavirus-2020-3
2. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/cellphone-tracking-could-help-stem-spread-coronavirus-privacy-price
3. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/27/watchdog-approves-use-uk-phone-data-if-helps-fight-coronavirus
4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/03/17/white-house-location-data-coronavirus/
5. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/25/coronavirus-china-to-boost-mass-surveillance-machine-experts-say.html
6. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html
7. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/06/us-internet-bill-seen-as-opening-shot-against-end-to-end-encryption
8. https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/about-us/our-portfolios/national-security/security-coordination/five-country-ministerial-2018
9. https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Intelligence_and_Security/IPOBill2020