Much attention is being paid to the way China uses new technology to contain the spread of the coronavirus. In the area of Wuhan, patrolling drones are equipped with high-resolution cameras and “thermoguns” to scan citizens’ body temperature and instruct people on the street. On the national level, artificial intelligence is being deployed for facial recognition to monitor (infected) citizens and to analyze social media in search of potential infections. In hospitals, robots are being used to effectively do away with human-to-human interaction and to establish remote communication with and treatment of patients.
What does this mean?
In its fight against the coronavirus, the Chinese government is expanding its surveillance program, which has been under development for some time already, and is launching campaigns of fresh data collection. Consequently, the spread of the coronavirus could be a “catalyst” for China to deploy mass surveillance technologies and further expand its surveillance programs. In this sense, this current crisis provides us with a glimpse of a future in which these technologies are completely normalized.
The Western world is ambivalent in its response to China’s way of dealing with the virus and its use of mass surveillance techniques. To some extent, Europe seems to be clearly seizing the opportunity to form a strategic counter-narrative of an open Western society. At the same time, we live in an increasingly vulnerable world and, in a certain way, therefore seem to envy some of China’s policies and scale-up of surveillance tech. There are two ways of looking at this. One could argue that the vulnerability of the world is objectively increasing and, to guarantee safety and stability, we have no other choice than to embrace similar surveillance techniques. Others, including thinkers such as Ulrich Beck and Giorgio Agamben, take a different view and place more emphasis on the perception of increasing vulnerability. In their opinion, fear is the driving force of society and increased objective risks aren’t the main cause of current policies