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The COVID-19 Enhanced Virtual Panopticon

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio Flores, Tracy Rickman, and Don Mason
August 5, 2020

The second decade of the twenty-first century began with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, an event that challenged the world with a health crisis not experienced since the 1918 Influenza pandemic. The previous decade’s viral health challenges with SARS, Ebola, Zika and H1N1 have paled in comparison to the current response efforts.

With quarantine being the most effective measure to mitigate and control the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there has been an unprecedented use of commercial and governmental surveillance methodologies to monitor and enforce isolation on a global scale that would not have been socially acceptable two years ago. Contact tracing became a household term embraced for the short term to support a united front against the virus. The need to ensure health and safety on a personal level created the general acceptance of surveillance activities that stretch the balance between constitutional rights and the safety and security of the nation. Fear of our mortality serves as the fulcrum of technologies invading our lives through surveillance on a scale not recognized by previous experiences in our lives.

The enforcement of quarantine orders has fashioned a virtual panopticon that monitors our lives on a scale not imagined by the eighteenth century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who, with his brother, designed the panopticon as an efficient way of monitoring prisoners. As prisoners or citizens, the virtual panopticon being developed is bringing together technologies that will be part of our new normal—a normal that constantly monitors our movements, conversations and behaviors. The state of emergency will long outlast the opening of the nation as fears of a second round of COVID-19 is expected in the coming months. One only needs to open the daily news to read about municipalities and other governmental organizations, already beginning to “observe” its citizens, with or without consent.

The ubiquitous smartphone has provided governments with valuable information on the movement of people. This has facilitated the enforcement of quarantine measures as well as providing the means to map current and prospective infections from the COVID-19 virus. Mapping is a powerful means of control. Cartography’s long history of being an arm of national secrets is experiencing a new frontier. Mapping of human behavior provides a new frontier for exploration and exploitation that goes beyond the current health crises.

Innovative application of current technology resulted in governments around the world enforcing quarantines with surveillance measures unheard of with previous epidemics or pandemics. China has monitored its citizens using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), smartphones and CCTV cameras to monitor the spread of COVID-19. Likewise, South Korea, Israel and Singapore use location data, video camera footage and credit card information to track the spread of COVID-19 by monitoring human behavioral patterns.

Google released location data to track movement during the quarantine under the guise of Community Mobility Reports as a means of being socially responsible. In this and similar actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 privacy lost its importance in the national debate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) partnered with Facebook and Google to develop forecasts of the current pandemic. Are the actions of commercial companies altruistic or is there an ulterior motive for cooperating with government agencies? As we move forward and our leaders make decisions in the name of our best interest and health concerns, will people support this concept or push back as time extends the panopticon’s surveillance?

The question facing society is: How long have commercial and government organizations been monitoring the population with these same techniques? If so, why was personal information mined from our personal devices and behaviors? Is it acceptable for commercial companies to commoditize our behaviors in their pursuit of profit? Will joining the effort curb those violating the quarantine and provide fait accompli license to not only continue, but also enhance the scope of the virtual panopticon created by COVID-19? What is going to happen to the data collected and stored when the pandemic ends? The potential for abuse by government and commercial entities is practically limitless. How will society balance constitutional rights against the new normal of a virtual panopticon?

As we adapt, modify and accept how the pandemic changed our lives, the quest for protecting a person’s rights and the unique obligation of caring for our fellow human beings converge in an environment of conflict. The definition of what is best for the nation will vary. The reality for those in leadership positions is that their decisions will affect many. They must consider the unintended consequences of actions taken in the name of safety.  

Ygnacio “Nash” Flores
Tracy Rickman
Don Mason

All serve as faculty in Rio Hondo College’s Public Safety Department.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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