Has COVID-19 Worsened State Surveillance & Invasion Of Privacy?

In these trying times amid COVID, we perceive others who are ‘different’ from us as people to be wary of.

5 min read
Hindi Female

The article intends to cover the idea of lateral surveillance as a social phenomenon that is gaining traction among communities in India and outside, as the State actively and passively empowers private individuals to disregard the right to privacy of their fellow citizens, monitor their actions, silence their dissent and control their thoughts.

“I wonder what they are up to?”

“Aren’t we responsible for their safety?”

“Should we not uphold Indian culture and tradition?”

Rings a bell? We hear these all around us, all too often. Often veiled as ‘noble’, the actions that follow these thoughts can be incredibly damaging to our democratic way of existence. These transgressions of private space, done in the name of ‘protection of social order’, have given rise to agencies of vigilante morality enforcement.

Over the years, this has been a force that took birth and died mostly as a social phenomenon without any institutional backing.

Now states across the globe are finding ways to make the best use of this social phenomenon to complement their ‘monitor, control and silence’ policies.


Lateral Surveillance As A Means To Complement Top-Down Surveillance

The human temptation to violate another’s private space can be traced back to our own curious nature itself. We are eager to know what others are up to and share this information with the rest. This urge was apparently the trigger to our cognitive evolution, as narrated by Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’. In these times of information explosion, one could say, this activity has been magnified to unprecedented levels. With eyeballs, cameras and biometrics devices waiting to capture each last bit of our private lives, every living being is an object to be observed and monitored. We have become actors in a grand show that is never over.

Over the years, we’ve learned to be mindful of governmental transgressions around us. Arbitrary rules have legitimised government surveillance mechanisms as a tool to defend against the threat of national security. As the citizenry is now more conscious of how surveillance machinery works, and have found ways to work around it, the efficacy of traditional surveillance as a tool for intimidation and action has seemingly reduced.

It is at this juncture that states across the globe have started exploring the idea of lateral surveillance, complementing the traditional form of top-down surveillance.

The tools were rather simple –– an empowered group of individuals motivated by a cause to monitor and peep into private lives to bring in a ‘prescribed order’ in society.

The efforts to normalise the culture of voyeurism and neighbourhood monitoring began by propagating a victim complex among majority communities. Standards of majoritarian morality, social hierarchy and culture, became their justification for violating civil liberties and taking action against those who speak up. The State was able to leverage the primal human tendency to be curious about something sinister.


Surveillance: From Freedom to Fundamentalism

Since the spread of COVID-19, we could witness it manifesting it in both good and bad ways. The enormous power of the State to set standards of social behaviour was never starker as it was in the case of the COVID-19-induced lockdown. Lateral surveillance became the norm as neighbourhoods were empowered to look out and punish the violators who step out. Interference in the civil rights and liberties done under the garb of protection from the pandemic became commonplace.

As members of society are empowered to monitor, judge and sanction each other under broad directions laid out by the State, it transforms from a space of freedom and liberty into prejudice and fundamentalism. An act of dissent becomes a ‘problem’ one needs to ‘fix’; criticism becomes a blemish that needs to removed, transparency becomes a luxury and truth turns into a foregone conclusion.

The society becomes a force that is continually forcing the individual to obey or perish.

It has not been this extreme in all cases, however. Indian states like Kerala where the social cohesion, media coverage and trust in the state is relatively high, these actions were more controlled. The tool of lateral surveillance was quite useful in ensuring cases of quarantine, as there, it curbed the tendency of the public to venture out into public spaces.


Surveillance & Its Perils: Xenophobia & ‘Othering’

Despite the social benefits offered by lateral surveillance, the darker side of it manifested in Kerala as well. While lateral surveillance has helped the state in controlling the pandemic spread, it has also provided sanctity for wanton acts of privacy invasion. These voyeuristic and judgemental eyes could easily be your neighbourhood uncle who was volunteering for COVID-19 prevention measures, or the local politician who takes pride in his party’s good intentions.

Glimpses of such instances of moral policing have been the subject of Malayalam films such as Ishq, Kumbalangi Nights, Varuthan and more recently, Kappela. While these storylines of these films may differ from one another, one can find elements of social behaviour bordering on voyeurism, veiled in some form of surveillance and ‘protection’.

This tendency to privatise law enforcement sets a dangerous precedent which takes us back to the ‘bounty hunters’ of the wild west.

It inadvertently creates a hierarchy as access to power and justice in the present social circumstances is a monopoly of the privileged few.

This urge to do lateral surveillance by the members of the public manifests in the form of xenophobic reactions against the migrant population in Kerala as well. Xenophobia takes root as natives anoint themselves into the position of helpless victims of crimes allegedly carried out by migrants who come as manual labourers. Lack of social capital and economic resources makes the migrant population vulnerable and voiceless against this popular narrative. The ‘othering’ of the community and creation of imaginary but believable enemy allows the majority to take the law into their own hands, starting with surveillance.


Of Fear & Loathing

In these trying times, we have ended up erecting fences in our minds as well as becoming indifferent to lives outside of our comfort zones. We perceive people with values, lifestyles and cultural habits different from ours with a sense of caution. We are tempted to monitor their movements for they are perceived to be not just a potential carrier of the virus but a threat to our way of life as well.

Sounds familiar?

That’s what the Germans told themselves before the Holocaust began.

(The author is a management consultant working for one of the Big-4 firms, specialising in public policy, human resources and rural development since 2013. He graduated from National Law University, Punjab and did his post-graduation in Human Resource Management from TISS, Mumbai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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