The current C-19 pandemic has led to a number of very challenging questions. Of course, as a society we want to provide the best care, and minimise the number of deaths. In order to achieve this however, we have had to make some unprecedented sacrifices, not least with our civil liberties.

For some, these are acceptable; London Mayor Sadiq Khan in calling for the ‘lock-down’ stated. ‘Our liberties and human rights need to be changed, curtailed, infringed – use whatever word you want’ in order to tackle the virus.

For others, including high court judge, Lord Sumption, such curtailment should be undertaken with the utmost caution. It is not so much whether you agree with the police using drones to ‘catch’ people walking two by two in the Peak District, or a lone woman sitting on Aberystwyth beach being told that she is ‘breaking the law’; but on whose authority the police are acting?

Proceeding on the expressed preference of the government rather than on a basis of what is lawful, may lead to the very police state that we, on this side of the now dismantled ‘Iron Curtain’, used to rail against.

And so what of the former Eastern Bloc?

There were high hopes in the West that the end of the Cold War would birth a range of pluralistic, open democratic societies like our own. Sadly, this has not come to pass.

In the nearly 30 years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, we have seen the Russian Federation, pass laws that curtail freedom of the press, assembly and limit the scope of civil society. A recent tightening of the latter has led the closure of some of the Russian Federation’s most prominent NGOs. Formed during Perestroika, these included human rights organisation Memorial and environmental protection group Baikal Wave [1].

In response to C-19, the Russian government has taken the opportunity to increase surveillance to unprecedented levels. In Moscow, 100,000 facial recognition cameras have been installed to identify individuals ‘breaking quarantine’. Other provinces such as Nizhny Novgorod (250 miles from Moscow) have introduced an online pass system. Citizens may only leave their home once they have received online permission via a QR code. Geo-location and banking data is then used to track the individual to ensure compliance.

Now the Russian authorities have access to geolocation and banking data, they can obtain other information about people’s private lives, associations, and activities that do not serve the goal of containing and preventing the spread of C-19. It is also unlikely that the facial recognition cameras now installed in Moscow, will be removed once this emergency is over.

These are the type of surveillance and monitoring tools that the KGB could have only dreamed of!

It is easy to think in the land of the Magna Carta, that this could not happen here. Yet, like 9/11 before it, a global crisis has let mass surveillance ‘genies’ out of the bottle. The permanency of legislation like the US Patriot Act, illustrates that once such genies are let out – they are difficult to put back in. We may have given away some of our civil liberties for the greater good – but these are only on loan. As a society we must ensure that such curtailments to ensure our safety, do not become permanent when this crisis is over.

[1] For more on the management of Russia’s civil society see:

  • Ljubownikow, S. and Crotty, J. (2017) ‘Managing Boundaries: The Role of Non-Profit Organisations in Russia’s Managed Democracy’. Sociology51 (5) 940-954
  • Crotty J, Hall S M & Ljubownikow S (2014) Post-Soviet Civil Society Development in the Russian Federation: The Impact of the NGO Law, Europe Asia Studies66 (8): 1253-1269

Prof Jo Crotty is Director of the Institute for Social Responsibility and a Professor of Management at Edge Hill University.

Photo by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

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