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July 20, 2020

COVID–19: Surveillance, Intelligence and Security

Global insight Intelligence

Authors: James Goldgeier, Florian Kerschbaum, Tom Sorell, Berhan Taye

Editors: Briony Jones and Maeve Moynihan

This post is part of a larger collection covering the Global Insights webinar series, hosted jointly by Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick (UK), the Institute for Strategic Affairs (Ethiopia), American University’s School of International Service (USA), and Konstanz University (Germany). This series of Global Insights has finished and the next series will resume in September. You can access a recording of this week’s webinar here.

Panellists: Ann Fitz-Gerald (BSIA), James Goldgeier (American University), Florian Kerschbaum (University of Waterloo), Tom Sorell (University of Warwick), Berhan Taye (Access Now)

COVID-19 and efforts to contain it have raised important questions about surveillance, security, and government protection of populations. The recent use of contact tracing apps in a number of countries has renewed debates surrounding privacy and surveillance and rendered them more complicated. Such apps, among other technological aspects of the pandemic like misinformation, spark important discussion surrounding the use, and misuse, of technology in the age of the pandemic.

Governments have often “declared war” on a wide range of issues, including drugs and terrorism, among others. Is COVID-19 a National Security threat? If so, how does it differ from other national security issues of the 21st century?

The crisis of COVID-19 is indeed a collective one, however we raise the question of whether war should be used for the narrative that we are facing at the moment. For those who are in the peacebuilding space, the recurring narrative of war and repetitive use of militarised language is concerning. Indeed, if the COVID-19 crisis really were a war then we would have expected those states who have invested heavily in the military, such as the USA, to have better controlled the pandemic. As such, the crisis and its narrative need not reflect the action of declaring war, but rather the action of building resilience. Whereas security is often defined as national, in that it protects a country and/or a people, recent work has expanded notions of security, including individual and societal security surrounding health, socioeconomic status, and other markers of safety. If we embrace such notions of security, the pandemic will allow us to connect demands from populations that their governments keep them safe in many facets of quotidian life. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent increased activism surrounding Black Lives Matter in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere, have demonstrated that the topic of security is not only a question of whether the government protects their people from threats, but whether the government itself becomes a threat. Thus, COVID-19 is a threat to ‘national security’ however not necessarily under the militarised terms in which it is traditionally defined.

We hear a lot about contract tracing apps as a tool for combatting COVID-19. How is technology being used to contain the COVID-19 virus, and what are the implications for human rights and civil liberties like the right to privacy and freedom of association?

There is an important difference to be articulated between COVID-19 surveillance, which Edward Snowden identified as part of a longer-term surveillance architecture, and other forms of surveillance related to challenges such as terrorism. The scientific basis for the COVID surveillance – in virology and epidemiology – has no counterpart in the war against terrorism. Moreover, the national health authorities, and not the government, typically collect COVID-19 data, thus separating it from traditional surveillance. However, valid concerns exist about the ways in which these tracing apps are able to change people’s behaviours, and the ways in which they are becoming part of the critical infrastructure. If we consider the possibility of misuse of this app technology, we could envisage a reduction in public trust and a significant impact on public life. This leaves critical infrastructure potentially vulnerable and encourages us to think about what these apps do and what role they play. Primarily, they store and provide location and health data, and of course these databases already exist through platforms such as Goggle and Apple. One could argue that the app is a more privacy preserving solution, and a social contract for how we gather and store this information. We see, however, some challenges for democratic governments persuading their populations to use these apps. Liberal democracy has operated with a notion of a private sphere that is off limits to the government, and yet these apps require that we give up some of this privacy. In some countries, such as the USA trust in the government is already so low and it is even difficult to encourage the population to wear masks, let alone to use these apps. In others, the freedom of association and civil liberty is under threat, as the government controls internet traffic and thus can quash social movements that may be trackable through COVID-19 tracing apps. As countries around the world ease lockdown restrictions and enter a ‘new normal’ time will tell how this new technology will impact our societies.

Greater surveillance is a key element in the toolbox for containing the pandemic. Is there a danger that invasions of privacy will be normalised after the pandemic?

It is important to contextualise ideas and debates over privacy. There are no guarantees that this technology will not be used against the populations it purports to be serving, and we need to remain vigilant to the historical use of these technologies beyond the current COVID-19 tracing apps. This has a gendered aspect, when we consider the possibility of tracing the health choices of women in particular. Large technology companies, who provide this tracing app technology, are the same companies who have been implicated in monitoring human rights and civil liberties defenders previously. There are, of course, implications for the right to protest and the right to organise in the context of COVID-19 restrictions and surveillance during lockdown. If we look to the UK we can see increased forms and receptivity to solidarity, first with regards to the National Health Service (NHS) and now with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. But the timing and local context matters when balancing the breaking of lockdown rules against health risks. The lived experience of many black people in the UK and the heightened sense of solidarity renders these questions particularly important. Moreover, there are questions to be answered regarding what has become normalised in these contexts of ‘war’. The sharing of data between private companies and government, increased levels of police brutality, limited regulation, and government decisions without public participation are all concerning. The privacy paradox describes how we are prepared to give up privacy for a small incentive, even though we are at the same time very concerned about our private information. In the case of the COVID-19 app this paradox does not apply because it is not to the benefit of the individual but for the others who are protected if they stay at home. We should keep in mind this element when debating privacy, and acknowledge the differences between privacy concerns pre and during COVID-19.

Are there safeguards that can be enacted to ensure the technology used to address COVID do not undermine human rights?

There is significant debate as to how to construct a trustworthy app, and this is both a technical exercise as well as a democratic one. Many of the apps are being developed by those who do not have the proper expertise in privacy technology and this undermines trust in the public debate. There is a great variety between countries in terms of data protection laws and enforcement of those laws. For the human rights community this is a dangerous and worrying moment. We need oversight to generate checks and balances and public awareness of the development of such technologies. Regulators need to be at the forefront of this. We should consider whether new data laws are required, how data laws should be interpreted, and the limits of safeguards such as anonymisation. This is a process of ensuring that greater technical information provides the basis of data laws. Technology of course is also not the only solution, and investment in other aspects of social infrastructure is essential. Countries will need to build communities and offer social resources to demonstrate that they are not at war and that human rights should continue to be protected.

We’re also living in a world where disinformation and misinformation about COVID is rampant. Is there anything that can be done about this at national and global levels to address disinformation?

More self-conscious fact-checking resources which are prominent in social media would be helpful. In addition, the presentation of COVID updates should come from public health professionals without politicians present. We need an independent channel of communication to the wider world of public health without a partisan political spin. We see politicians and leaders who are the source of misinformation, and this needs to be countered. The issue of misinformation from a technological perspective is very difficult to handle. It is not easy to determine automatically what is misinformation, most attempts at that have failed. This is not only a technological problem but also one of a ‘grand truth’ where myths may take hold and become very dominant amongst a population. Governments can help by generating transparency and involving the public in a continuous debate over privacy issues and data collection. In Germany, trustworthy actors have been used in rolling out the COVID-19 tracing app and have been involved in ongoing public discussion and this can act as an example for other countries. However, this case also illustrates the challenges of this issue as take up of the app has nonetheless been lower than hoped. There is a question of where the responsibility lies for fact-checking, whether it should be individuals or whether platforms themselves should have some responsibility. We have seen cases in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, of journalists being arrested or targeted because of sharing facts regarding COVID-19. In such sensitive contexts we need to be clear about where responsibilities lie and protections can be ensured. This requires more effective and inclusive international leadership on privacy, security and regulation during this time.

What recommendations would you make to policy makers?

1. Promote and elevate science in the discussions about COVID-19 and responses, in particular de-coupling it from politicians.

2. Use national risk registers as a point of reference as well as discuss them publicly.

3. Collect data in a transparent way, explaining to the public what you are doing and why.

4. Make policies for people at the margins.

5. The United States Government need to show more humility and commit to multilateral organisations such as the World Health Organisation.

May 27, 2020

Global Insights: COVID–19 and the Global South

Covid19 and global south

Authors: Jonathan Crush, Ann Fitz-Gerald, Hallelujah Lulie, Briony Jones, Anja Osei, Shirin Rai, Rachel Robinson

Editors: Briony Jones and Maeve Moynihan

This post is part of a larger collection covering the Global Insights webinar series, hosted jointly by Balsillie School of International Affairs (Canada), the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick (UK), the Institute for Strategic Affairs (Ethiopia), American University’s School of International Service (USA), and Konstanz University (Germany). Global Insights webinars take place every Thursday at 16:00h (BST). You can access a recording of this week’s webinar here.

Panelists: Ann Fitz-Gerald (Moderator - BSIA), Briony Jones (PAIS/WICID), Shirin Rai (PAIS/WICID), Jonathan Crush (BSIA), Hallelujah Lulie (ISA), Rachel Robinson (AU), and Anja Osei (KU)

COVID-19 is highlighting existing inequalities, exacerbating differences between the Global North and Global South, and bringing to light the gendered, racialised, and ethicised differences in the way people experience and can respond to crisis. COVID-19 is a health crisis, but it is also a crisis of security, governance, and democracy. The following post summarizes reflections through five questions and five policy recommendations.

In what ways does the pandemic in the Global South differ from that in Europe and North America?

Both scholars and journalists have been quick to highlight the differing experiences between the Global North and the Global South during the pandemic. A more nuanced approach that acknowledges similarities between the Global North and South as well as variations within the Global South itself is necessary. Within the Global South, economic consequences may be more severe, health burdens are greater, infrastructures for regulating populations are weaker, and trust in political institutions is lower, all of which may affect the capacity of governments to deal with the crisis. However, the population in the Global South is younger, less urbanised, has a history of dealing with health emergencies, and has fewer severe infections and fatalities thus far. This may just reflect a time lag and under-reporting in the Global South, but it may also demonstrate forms of resilience and early action which are not present in the Global North. There have been inspiring and effective responses throughout the Global South that disprove many flawed portrayals of the region, including effective food and resource distribution, accurate and consistent global health messaging, and the preservation of human rights in a time of crisis.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic in the North affecting the Global South?

The possibility of declining capital flow for development was a recurring topic throughout the webinar discussion. This decline encompasses remittances, foreign direct investment, and overseas development aid. In 2019, over 250 million migrants collectively remitted over $600 billion to their home countries. Remittances fell by 7% during the 2008 financial crisis, and the World Bank estimates that they have already dropped by 20% during the pandemic. The closure of borders in the Global North has already affected migration and remittance flows. As demand for clothing and other consumer goods declines, factory workers in the Global South have lost jobs without any security or pay. Support for foreign direct investment to Africa has already declined, and argued that the 0.7 Gross Domestic Product development assistance commitment may soon come under pressure as well. Such dramatic decreases in capital flow to the Global South will have a sustained impact on economies there. The US government’s attempts to defund the World Health Organisation exemplifies how governments may use COVID-19 as an excuse to limit funding to multilateral organisations. These tendencies towards isolationism, as well as neo-colonial trends as the Global North serve as concerning signs of what may come.

What is the response to COVID-19 taken by the South and what are we learning from it?

A variety of responses from the Global South have arisen so far, including quick and effective responses which demonstrate strong leadership at a time of crisis. National and local context drives this variation, but histories of responding to health crises and activism around the right to health impact it as well, as we see in Brazil for example. The Africa Centre for Security Studies has pointed to innovative responses such as Presidential Task Forces which mobilise professionals from different disciplines to share best practices like mobile testing. Governments in the South initially responded to the informal sector with tight spatial control, but later reversed this decision realising its vital importance for food security, among other aspects of daily life. In Addis Ababa for example, where around 40% of the economy is informal, the application of lockdown has to be different to contexts that we might see in London or Paris. In the context of the Global South, many populations see the lockdown response as more painful than the pandemic, leading to protest. As governments respond to this opposition, monitoring and observing in future elections will be affected, which may further cement authoritarian tendencies in government and increased dissatisfaction among populations.

Many countries in the global south are pursuing far-reaching democratization agenda. How is/could COVID-19 impact on these agenda?

The Global South is in a liminal moment in which xenophobic and populist politics may intensify, or a more collectivist political approach will triumph where states, civil society organisations, and multilateralism win out. For example, there is evidence in India of civil society organisations providing the much-needed food to the poor during lockdown, however there is also evidence of the pandemic being communalised to target India’s Muslim populations. This moment shows how the state can mobilise crises to shut down democratic critique in the name of urgency. Scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers must remain vigilant in order to guard against these potential threats to democracy, particularly in states where authoritarian tendencies are using such restrictions to quash opposition activism. In Senegal, for example, a recent study found that more than 80% of the population is suffering from the economic conditions due to lockdown, yet more than 80% approve of the government measures and are ready to comply. The pandemic and responses to it have and will continue to exacerbate inequalities surrounding gender and sexual orientation, in particular. For example, access to contraception and abortions is reduced and governments with a pre-exiting anti-LGBTQI stance continue to target sexual and gender minorities, but access to community support services are diminished. We have yet to see if this will also offer a powerful rallying cry for populations to demand more from the state.

How will/has COVID-19 impact(ed) Security Issues in the Global South?

In many places, the pandemic has emboldened state power and created an entry point to consolidate national consensus. The pandemic threatens security surrounding food, justice, equality, and more. In 2019 the FAO estimated that almost 2 billion people globally were either moderately or severely food insecure. Lockdowns have disrupted supply chains, reduced income, and increased food insecurity amongst the most vulnerable as the Hungry Cities Project has identified. The joint food and economic crises are forcing governments in some nations to relax lockdown restrictions before the health pandemic allows. The panel also highlighted the way in which the pandemic is widening the justice gap. In a report in 2019, the Task Force on Justice found that 1.5 billion people globally have a justice problem which they cannot resolve and that 4.5 billion people globally are excluded from the opportunities that the law provides. Current emergency measures may lead to, or indeed themselves be, violations of human rights for the general population and racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. A coordinated response from all justice actors – local, national and international, civil society and private sector – is necessary to independently monitor these measures, create safe zones in violence hotspots, and generate people-centred data on needs.

Key Conclusions: Five pieces of advice for policy-makers

1. Development agencies in the Global North should design aid programming that incorporates social care and social work. Governments in both the Global North and Global South should include increased resources for social care in relevant budgets, and recognise the value of care work being undertaken, as well as the gendered dimensions as women take up the burden of additional care work due to COVID-19.

2. Governments in both the Global North and Global South should invest resources in social infrastructure and build strong social welfare systems, considering policy tools such as universal welfare provision, basic income, wage protections schemes and public childcare provision.

3. Policy makers in governments as well as practitioners in development agencies should take an interdisciplinary approach including, but not limited to, health expertise.

4. Fund independent data collection, including a focus on people-centred data.

5. National governments and multilateral organisations should use this opportunity to create national consensus and dialogue.

Through these five pieces of advice for policymakers, the topic of COVID-19 and the Global South can spur conversation about how we understand the effects of the pandemic, how we construct narratives of the ‘crisis’ of the pandemic, and how we respond as scholars, practitioners and policy makers to ameliorate the impact of the crisis. While leadership, innovation and best practices are visible in the Global South, resource needs and declining development aid are growing. A multilateral response in conjunction with local and national action are of utmost importance to address the complexities and variations in the Global South at this time of crisis.


The Warwick Interdisciplinary Research Centre for International Development addresses urgent problems of inequality and social, political and economic change on a global level.

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