South Korea’s fight against the Covid-19 turns out to be worrisome! Not for being ineffective in combating the virus, but for a different story that I would like to tell. As a part of the fight against the Covid-19 Pandemic, South Korea becomes a top user of digital surveillance methods among liberal democracies, which makes it a distinctly special case among the UK, Germany, and Israel follow the suit. In combating the spread of the virus, digital surveillance is by no means ineffective. South Korea among the most successful countries to contain the virus and digital surveillance deserves credit here. However, the use of these methods has already stirred a debate focusing on privacy rights. This piece does not discuss the negative impacts of digital surveillance in liberal democracies per se, rather aims to draw attention to the point that how the adoption of such measures in liberal democracies may contribute further democratic backsliding in hybrid regimes.
So far, South Korea has been a praised example of its effective strategies to contain the Covid-19. From more than 900 cases in a single day to a daily average of around 30 cases by mid-April without resorting lockdowns is a success story! The reasons behind this success story vary from the lessons learned from past experiences to the effectiveness of its healthcare system. Yet, one specific tool has also played a significant role without being much criticized during the smokescreen of the pandemic, which is digital surveillance. South Korea’s system is one of the most sophisticated among the world and a leading one among liberal democracies. Currently, South Korean officials can find people who might have infected from someone they met by scanning smartphone data only within ten minutes.
Why does it matter?
Even such practices in liberal democracies do not necessarily stir authoritarianism or lead democratic backsliding, they might very likely to serve as precedents for autocratic regimes. Introduction of novel digital surveillance measures to combat the Covid-19 crisis has already generated heated debates on privacy rights and democratic values. Keeping in mind the risks that digital surveillance poses to established democracies, we should also pay attention to the cases beyond liberal democracies.
These innocent practices in liberal democracies may high likely to foster what law scholar Ozan Varol called ‘stealth authoritarianism’ in hybrid and autocratic regimes around the globe. The term basically refers to governments’ exhaust of legal remedies to obtain outcomes that lead to eventual democratic backsliding. In most cases where stealth authoritarianism has observed, autocratic leaders/parties mimic laws and practices in liberal democracies to cover their real agenda. By this means, they can refer to similar laws and practices -at least on paper- implemented in democratic countries when they are accused. In this sense, digital surveillance methods will highly likely to be used in the hands of autocrats -or wannabe autocrats- as political tools to consolidate their power. In such a scenario, repression may take various forms from mapping out opposition networks through wiretapping to tracing banking transactions, from blackmailing to spreading fake news by manipulating data. Moreover, no one can guarantee the recede of such surveillance practices after the pandemic even in liberal democracies, let alone hybrid regimes.
Autocrats across the world would justify the implementation of surveillance measures in their own countries by citing such practices in democracies. It might sound exaggerated or pessimistic but when we look at some past examples, it will appear as a genuine risk. For instance, the security measures taken in the aftermath of 9/11 have been diffused and exploited by many hybrid regimes and autocracies. Putin’s Russia is a proper example of whom exploited the US discourse of ‘global war on terror’ and related extraordinary measures. Likewise, Turkey’s Erdogan repeatedly cited France when he/his government was criticized by domestic and international observers of implementing extraordinary -often extra-legal measures- during the state of emergency declared after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. France’s declaration of the state of emergency after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015 had been exploited by the ruling AKP, presented as a precedent when it prolonged the state of emergency and partly used in efforts to justify the actions during this period.
It is not something new, so why to fear now?
These digital surveillance techniques and related laws are not new, they have already been implemented for years. China shines out as a textbook example for being the trend-setter in both developing/practicing state-of-the-art surveillance technology and amending/codifying related laws incomparably. However, the diffusion of these practices from China is highly unlikely because of a simple reason; legitimacy. Because of China’s bad reputation as a ‘black horse’ regime, for hybrid regimes to implement similar practices at home -let alone liberal democracies- bears a serious risk of backlash. Thus, leaders of such regimes have to present strong justifications to the public. However, at this point, the implementation of digital surveillance methods in liberal democracies has the potential to pave the way for broader application of similar methods at an unprecedented level. Autocrats across the world would not hesitate to seize this opportunity to tighten their control by presenting exactly the same reasoning applied in liberal democracies; fight against the Covid-19. For the sake of public health, restrictions on privacy would be presented as a bitter pill to swallow.
Liberal democracies’ adoption of digital surveillance methods and related legislations creates two main outcomes that facilitate diffusion of such measures across the world. The first, it provides a sort of legitimacy (for being a precedent) which enables governments to adopt similar -and often much stricter- measures without facing much resistance as before. The second, related to the legitimacy, democracies’ welcome might lead many technology firms to invest in this field which eventually lowers the prices and increase accessibility/affordability of surveillance technologies for many aspiring autocrats.
Reasons to Be Pessimistic
Digital surveillance is an extremely hard-to-deal issue for societies in hybrid regimes, mainly due to two reasons. The first, in hybrid regimes, checks and balances have already been worn down to varying degrees. In the first place, the legislation of related laws would be relatively easier in such countries. Moreover, constitutional checks along with other legal barriers and necessary watchdogs are not strong enough to supervise the extent of digital surveillance measures. In the end, most autocrats will be equipped with an unchecked use of surveillance that will most likely to continue after the pandemic. Second, information technologies are among the least familiar area of professions for the broader public which makes it difficult to be checked by the broader public except for a few specialists -and whistleblowers. This is the case even when we assume that a vivid civil society exists in these hybrid regimes. Thus, many governments can easily track their people without being detected or most people would be unaware of being tracked (even if the governments announce recede of such measures after the pandemic). In this sense, the risk of tracking people under the cover of the digital cloak is much less risky than publicly arresting opponents on the streets by brute force.
Pandemic has already offered autocrats around the world a valuable opportunity
to consolidate their power and silence their opponents. We have already seen
conventional methods of tightening control, especially in Hungary, Philippines,
and India by using the crisis as the excuse. However, when digital surveillance
is put on top of the ongoing crisis, we may experience an unprecedented
dimension of democratic backsliding. The current debates on digital
surveillance in South Korea -along with the UK,
Israel, and Germany- barely transcend privacy rights to a point of
overall democratic backsliding. However, when these digital surveillance
measures are being implemented in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, India, Brazil, and
many others, the debate will gravitate more on democratic backsliding. In fact,
we have already seen the first signals in Russia.
Time will tell how far digital surveillance can undermine privacy rights, civic
rights, and eventually the essence of democracy. As I tried to draw attention,
we also need to keep an eye on stealth authoritarianism in hybrid regimes.
Links between technology and democracy are worth more attention and we should
always be cautious before giving consent to share our data with our governments
in times of crisis.
“How Coronavirus is Eroding Privacy”, The Wall Street Journal, accessed on April 26, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-paves-way-for-new-age-of-digital-surveillance-11586963028
“How South Korea Flattened the Curve”, The New York Times, accessed in April 26, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/world/asia/coronavirus-south-korea-flatten-curve.html
“The quite different states of emergency in France and Turkey”, Euronews, accessed on April 26, 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2016/07/21/the-quite-different-states-of-emergency-in-france-and-turkey
 “How Coronavirus is Eroding Privacy”, The Wall Street Journal, accessed on April 26, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/coronavirus-paves-way-for-new-age-of-digital-surveillance-11586963028