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Empowerment or Surveillance? Our Post-Virus Choice

The world after coronavirus, Financial Times, March 20 2020, Yuval Noah Harari

Taking Back Control

“Humankind is now facing a global crisis. Perhaps the biggest crisis of our generation. The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. We should also take into account the long-term consequences of our actions. When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world.”

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Through the WI Lens

Harari’s piece boils down to two particular choices that he suggests we will be forced to make: “between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment”; and “between nationalist isolation and global solidarity”. It’s the first of these that really resonates at the individual level. Technology has made it possible for governments to monitor all their citizens all the time, not just in their external behaviours, but through “under the skin” data that records everything from their body temperature to their emotions. In China, mobile phones and facial recognition cameras are already being used to help identify COVID19 carriers, to track contacts and to warn people of their proximity to those who are infected. Potentially, the coronavirus provides a pretext for governments to oblige every citizen to wear a biometric bracelet, on the grounds of protecting public health. But the same technology could equally be used by citizens to empower themselves, to monitor their own health and protect themselves, and even to hold the government to account, rather than for authoritarian purposes.

What’s clear is that the genie of biometric data cannot be put back into the bottle; and in the post-virus world personal health will become a much greater priority in all our lives. The challenge for society will be for individuals to take control and to harness the benefits of the technology without sacrificing basic human freedoms that would fundamentally change our lives.

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