Does big brother really have our backs?

Photo by Billy Bui

Quarantine leading to state information gathering

By Matthew Fraser, Opinions Editor

The Chinese government has been using its network of CCTVs to monitor the movements of citizens—whether they are suspected or confirmed carriers of COVID-19. They also provided infected citizens with a wristband that coordinated with cellphone data to alert the police to any movement beyond one’s quarantined area. Kind of like a house arrest anklet. In South Korea, the government is using cellphone location data in conjunction with credit card records to track who went where and whether or not they could have infected someone else.

Coronavirus has leapt from being the 200th thing Cardi B has screamed this month to becoming the inadvertent tool of state surveillance. Obviously, this is a time where individuals don’t want to get sick and the state wants as few people as possible rushing to healthcare facilities; however, even if Canada is less intrusive than China, is it actually a good idea for the government to be able to track your movements? And if they start tracking you now, will they really stop once COVID-19 has run its course?

Now, as a novel virus claims lives around the globe and every cough and chest tickle is the subject of fear and deep suspicion, the Quarantine Act has made a return. At this time, it gives our government the ability to enforce quarantine on any returning traveller for a mandatory 14 days. As soon as one clears customs, they are to go straight home without using public transit. No stops allowed. But how exactly does the state plan to enforce this isolation? The house arrest necessary is supposed to be as “unobtrusive as possible” but I see no way for one to be properly confined by government order without that intruding upon normal life. At this time, at least two women have been arrested for breaking their quarantine in Canada. That enforcement sounds obtrusive, and the ability for the state apparatus to monitor people in order to apprehend them is clearly an intrusion.

I certainly don’t think that the Canadian government aims to watch each and every one of us day in and day out, yet simultaneously, I am not pleased to hear that a system could be put in place where the state can use your cellphone data and purchase history to establish yours and everyone else’s whereabouts at will. More importantly, where will this data be stored, who has access to it, and how much of it can be modified by you—the provider of this data? Will the citizen own it as private record or will the data banks be state property with no consultation to the provider? Let’s not forget that every week some company is either hacked or caught amassing data that far exceeds the products they are selling for your use. Between Apple getting caught listening to conversations and private moments or Telus getting hacked and having its data compromised, the less of your data that exists the better.

We also must consider government overreach and the character of whoever resides in the highest office. How much power are we willing to give Trudeau and leave on the table for whoever comes after him? How much of our data are we willing to put into the government’s hand to remain long after we have died—or at least, while the office changes hands? How much should the government be able to lock us down before we ask for the key back?

The problem is not “is this power necessary now” but, “when this all ends will the power and the data disappear?” The “state” is everyone from Jagmeet Singh to the late Rob Ford—and all of his drug and alcohol battles. The state can be Mike Pence who wishes for creationism to be brought into public schools or it can be AOC who wants to prohibit the use of gasoline powered cars and save the world from cow farts. The state is as nefarious as Hitler or as benevolent as Jimmy Carter.

We can never guarantee that we will agree with everything that the state says and aims to do, no decision is perfect, and no leader can satisfy all of their voters. Yet in these trying times, we must not relinquish a power we can’t get back to a state that’s changing as fast as the people who are governed by it.