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If we don’t push back, “temp” powers are sure to be entrenched

We are in uncharted waters, grappling with many unknowns, from how long the lockdown will last to the (now heightened) machinations of the stock market. But one thing we do know: there are plenty of people poised to take advantage of the crisis, the harm to the public be damned.

That applies to large corporations hoping for competitors to close up shop, and then swooping in to buy assets at dimes to dollars and governments looking to enhance their police-state powers.

From Machiavelli and Orwell to Naomi Klein, crises have always been used to grasp more power, to disadvantage the public. We saw that naked greed following 9/11, and the lack of controls before and after 2008. With each new incident – and the advances in technology – our civil rights are steadily eroded.

Right now, we’re seeing some exceptional assaults on our rights, freedoms and privacy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether the measures undertaken are valid is a discussion for another time – ideally right afterwards, when powers will have to be curbed permanently – but there are already signs of trouble.

That’s not just in the likes of Hungary where the already fascist tendencies of Victor Orban have been growing for years, but even on the home front, where officials were attempting to gain new powers and mused about mass surveillance via our mobile phones. That such actions have not been roundly condemned and censured at this point is worrisome; if they’re not addressed, or preferably punished, later on, we’re setting the stage for much worse down the line.

As governments respond to the novel coronavirus, many are declaring states of emergency and giving themselves expansive powers. Some censor information, surveil populations, and detain critics. Are governments overreaching? Will new powers be rolled back when the crisis is over?

Such are the issues tackled by Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN Special Rapporteur on Counterterrorism and member of the Irish council for Civil Liberties.

“The danger is that states, particularly non-democratic or less open societies, would use the opportunity given by the health emergency to crack down on particular minority groups, or individuals or groups that they see as highly problematic,” she recently told Al Jazeera.

“It is not a popular position to argue for pause, evidence-based policy making and consideration of short-, medium- and long-term effects of exceptional powers when facing crisis. This can seem like a luxury in the face of the challenges faced in hospitals and medical settings. But the better we reflect in the short-term the more likely that the long term effects of such powers on open and fair societies is positive and not do more long-term damage to the health of democracies,” she posted on Twitter.

We have every reason to be worried about the consequences of actions being taken today morphing into more intrusive measures tomorrow.

“As the coronavirus pandemic brings the world to a juddering halt and anxious citizens demand action, leaders across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance,” writes Selam Gebrekidan is an investigative reporter for The New York Times based in London.

 “Governments and rights groups agree that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. States need new powers to shut their borders, enforce quarantines and track infected people. Many of these actions are protected under international rules, constitutional lawyers say.”

You can bet those in power are keen to enshrine measures to track us all, enabling a forceful response to public backlash and, most importantly, taking steps to ensure they stay in control, no matter what.

That’s the agenda that should deter those who trot out the “if you’ve got nothing to hide” argument in support of the ever-growing number of invasive measures being carried out by governments, ours included. That line of thought leads to an awfully slippery slope, one George Orwell would recognize: why not video monitoring inside your home, if you’ve got nothing to hide?

There are plenty of practical reasons to protest what the government is doing in this regard, as doing away with all surveillance, from cameras in public places to all spy agencies, would make us all much safer from the real threat to our liberties – here’s a hint, it’s not terrorists or, the new bogeyman, viruses.

Along with our civil liberties, they’ll also take our money. Of course, money’s no object to those who’ll line their pockets with your dollars while curtailing your freedoms. Oh, this is all couched in the language of increased safety, drawing heavily on terrorism rhetoric. This government is not the first to take authoritarian steps – that’s been going on for decades – but it certainly has been eager to take advantage of the post-9/11 frenzy, joining the U.S., UK and other nominal democracies in clawing back hard-won rights.

Many governments in the West have been quick to foster a culture of fear, allowing them to impose laws that would have been unthinkable before 9/11 and to spend vast sums of money on military, police and security programs that have enriched the coffers of a few at everyone else’s expense.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has long been at the forefront of the digital privacy battle, raises a number of concerns over the latest infringement.

“The COVID-19 public health crisis has no precedent in living memory. But government demands for new high-tech surveillance powers are all too familiar. This includes well-meaning proposals to use various forms of data about disease transmission among people. Even in the midst of a crisis, the public must carefully evaluate such government demands because surveillance invades privacy, deters free speech, and unfairly burdens vulnerable groups. It also metastasizes behind closed doors. And new surveillance powers tend to stick around,” writes the organization’s Adam Schwartz in piece posted last week.

With each new measure that increases video, phone and Internet surveillance, overrides the judicial process and creates new enemies through wars, we edge a little closer to the kind of dystopian state Orwell, Huxley and countless others have warned us about.

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