Editorial: Safeguarding democracy in a pandemic surveillance state

May 1, 2020 Ryukyu Shimpo

Is intolerance plaguing our society as we become engulfed in the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic? The increasing downplaying of our freedom and rising social pressure is alarming.

Prefectures have requested businesses to shut down and urged citizens to stay home, which has led to locals posting notes on open storefronts demanding them to close, or bad-mouthing cars with out-of-prefecture plates. The situation is stifling; people are monitoring and accusing each other, and those who defy government requests are met with hostility.

Of course it is important that people stay at home, in order to curb the spread of the virus. However, chastising others in an unofficial capacity is abuse and a human rights violation masked as a fight against the pandemic. The same can be said of discrimination fueled by fears of contracting the virus.

It is also evident that the public’s fear of the pandemic is being used to double-down on policies. A succession of municipalities have disclosed the names of pachinko parlors that chose to remain open despite the governors’ shut down requests. This can be viewed as an attempt at shaping public opinion against businesses that choose to remain open, making an example out of them in hopes that social sanctions will follow.

Ordinarily, when the government impedes on a business’s right to operate by asking it to close, compensations must be issued. The use of such tactics—applying social pressure to persuade businesses into closing, and the lack of thorough public discourse on the issue, feels wrong.

Public discourse is an indispensable element of democracy that acts as the brakes against excessive exercise of power. Instead of spying on each other, people should be monitoring the authorities. Failing to challenge the rising tyranny because we were preoccupied with a “national crisis,” would cause a grave problem in the future. Closely related to the issue of surveillance is the use of our personal information, which usually requires prudent handling.

Our location information, gathered by cell phone- and tech companies, is being used to study the effectiveness of the quarantine. Using the newest technology to fight the pandemic is an effective approach. However, once a line is crossed under the banner of “crisis management,” it will be extremely difficult to walk back the expansions of location surveillance and exploitation of personal information.

Collecting data of an individual’s location history, including the use of street surveillance cameras, is easy; the environment and technology for spying on citizens for specific purposes is already in place. If we continue to downplay the importance of our rights and privacy while our personal data continues to be exploited, it is sure to come back to haunt us in the future.

Under the totalitarian system in pre-war Japan, the tonari-gumi system provided the smallest organized unit of a neighborhood watch, in which members spied on each other. In states of emergencies, peace-time processes are abbreviated and totalitarian governance and surveillance are reinforced; this is not something unusual and unique to the pre-war era.

When a state of emergency is forced upon us, we must be especially sensitive to the curtailing of our rights. Human lives must be protected while safeguarding the fundamental pillars of democracy—our freedom and rights.


(English translation by T&CT and Monica Shingaki)

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