Well, this is a double-edged sword of its own kind.
The coronavirus spread and the public health crisis brought by COVID-19 worldwide has surfaced up some seriously debatable views on the world-order. As the celebrity historian Yuval Noah Harari has time and again put it across, the possibility of extreme state surveillance has become too real after the pandemic, and some countries in the world have already deployed robust strategies for mass monitoring. The rise in information technology and AI has made it even easier for the states to closely keep an eye on the public hence monitoring the exact movements and the collective behaviour of the masses. Nations like China and Vietnam were the first to implement GPS assisted mobile applications for keeping track of the high-risk areas of coronavirus spread. Even in India, the state-sponsored mobile application called 'Arogya Setu' has gained much hype after the pandemic as the officials loudly claim these technological tools as the 'fighting weapons against the disease'.
In such premises, individuals are encouraged to use these apps (sometimes even mandatorily nudged to do so), all the while the state holds the right to use the data from these platforms to its interest. For example, in India, you have to have the application installed, and your GPS turned on if you want to board a train from one city to another- for 'contact-tracing' lest you shall contract the virus. Such a forcible use of technology has both political and psychological implications. While it may assist those in power to keep a close eye on the movement of the voters, the voters on the other end are living with that notion of being continually watched. This leaves space both for quirky political manoeuvring if the state wants to assist the ruling class. In a way, the world has strangely turned into a prototypical Orwellian state. What is even more disconcerting is with the right kind of technology (take for example the smart-watches and arm-bands), the surveillance goes from over the skin to UNDER the skin: the state can not only monitor our physical movements and temporal locations, but it will exactly keep track of our biological data as well. With the new tech, it is plausible to think that everything from our body temperature to our heart rate and blood sugar levels will be available for the state at its perusal. This can be problematic if seen from a purely libertarian perspective.
However, when it comes to dissenting against the state's control over individual's privacy and data ( this is in the forefront of the individual rights issue), we can not justifiably speak against the state's action in an absolute manner. When libertarians argue against the state's control over individual rights (for example imposing lockdown and making contact tracing apps compulsory), they have to keep in mind that these are desperate times, and also that we have already given our private data and consent to big tech giants like Google, Apple and Amazon. When we can provide our data to private companies that are using it to make us buy even more of their products, what wrong is there in assisting the state by helping them manage the health-system in a more informed manner? Well, this is the argument that the supporters of state surveillance pose.
As such, the arguments are stretched too far into the extremes of the spectrum. However, possible solutions can come from somewhere in the middle:
1. Democratize data ownership
When we are giving data to the companies or any other party like the state, the individuals who consent to provide their data must have some stake at the whole process/product itself. This can be brought about in many ways. For example, since we are always giving more data to Amazon each time we buy something from their platform, we as consumers must have some ownership of Amazon, based on the data we provide. There should be policies that guarantee the individual's right to equity of the company/organization to which him/her is giving the personal data. This can be an effective way of managing the asymmetric control and monitoring of the mass behaviour by these large corporations. It is indeed a plausible thing to ask for. Since these companies gather power by virtue of the data we provide, we as the providers of the data must have some share of their financial/economic/technological gains.
2. Ensure check and balance between the public and the state.
Since the states are already monitoring the individuals to a massive scale, it is equally plausible for the public to start demanding the power to monitor the government in return. The public should come together to ensure that individual citizens be given enough power and discretion that they can unconditionally demand to see how the state is using the data they provide. This way, the watchers become watched, and there will be a fine balance of keeping the usage of data strictly into the realms of public health and safety only.
Hence, if contextually applied, right policy interventions coupled with the right technologies will bring about the betterment that our democracies need at the present moment. With or without COVID, the fate of human societies will always be malleable and dynamic with the kind of collective thought that we produce. There is never a hard and fast answer to whether the individual or the masses shall be favoured when it comes to protecting absolute rights. The answer might forever lie somewhere in between.
Read Harari's piece on Under the skin surveillance: