When I wrote about our emerging social distancing police state, I focused primarily on the broad, authoritarian powers being handed over to the executive branch at all levels and the temptations such executives might feel to use them excessively. But there’s another aspect of suspicion about our government that’s also drawing some attention during the pandemic. Libertarians have long been concerned about the way emerging technologies have led to a growing “surveillance state,” where Big Brother is watching your every move, collecting your data and potentially using those capabilities to infringe on your rights. But are such concerns being somehow muted when the alternative is dying of a modern-day plague?
That seems to be the position being taken in a recent opinion piece at Buzzfeed written by Rosie Gray and Caroline Haskins. We’re seeing plenty of trends around the country where citizens seem to glumly accept the idea of greatly expanded restrictions on their movements and government tracking of their activities in the name of stopping the spread of the virus. And as Gray and Haskins point out, even libertarian extremist Glenn Greenwald has found himself at least partially surrendering to the need for Big Brother to keep us safe, even if it means being spied on and supervised more than at any time in recent memory.
“I’m very concerned” about civil liberties, writer Glenn Greenwald, cofounder of the Intercept, who built his career as a critic of government surveillance, told BuzzFeed News. “But at the same time, I’m also much more receptive to proposals that in my entire life I never expected I would be, because of the gravity of the threat…”
“The kind of digital surveillance that I spent a lot of years — even before Snowden, and then obviously, the two or three years during Snowden — advocating against is now something I think could be warranted principally to stave off the more brute solutions that were used in China,” Greenwald said.
Greenwald said he was still trying to understand how to balance his own views on privacy against the current unprecedented situation. “We have to be very careful not to get into that impulse either where we say, ‘hey, because your actions affect the society collectively, we have the right now to restrict it in every single way.’ We’re in this early stage where our survival instincts are guiding our thinking, and that can be really dangerous.