American Journal of Public Health
December 2020 110(12)
COVID-19 and the Rise of Participatory SIGINT: An Examination of the Rise in Government Surveillance Through Mobile Applications
Global Health, Government, Human Rights, Social Science, Ethics
Rose Bernard, Gemma Bowsher and Richard Sullivan
110(12), pp. 1780–1785
The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a significant growth in government surveillance techniques globally, primarily through the use of cell phone applications. However, although these applications can have actionable effects on public health efforts to control pandemics, the participatory or voluntary nature of these measures is obscuring the relationship between health information and traditional government surveillance techniques, potentially preventing effective oversight. Public health measures have traditionally been resistant to the integration of government-led intelligence techniques, such as signals intelligence (SIGINT), because of ethical and legal issues arising from the nature of surveillance techniques.
We explore this rise of participatory SIGINT and its nature as an extension of biosurveillance through 3 drivers: the rise of surveillance capitalism, the exploitation of a public health crisis to obscure state of exception politics with a moral imperative, and the historically enduring nature of emergency-implemented surveillance measures.
We conclude that although mobile applications may indeed be useful in containing pandemics, they should be subject to similar oversight and regulation as other government intelligence collection techniques.