Many things have changed and evolved since 2013. But what is certain is that governments around the world have been ramping up their technology for surveillance.
And amid the coronavirus pandemic, many governments started using their knowledge for surveillance to combat the spread.
While they are certainly making progress, Edward Snowden said that the efforts may come with consequences to the general public.
The former CIA contractor and whistleblower who first made a name in the news after leaking classified documents about the scale of spying programs in the U.S., warns that once their surveillance technologies are taken to the next step, they are going to be difficult for anyone to put them back.
“When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky,” said Snowden in an interview with the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.
With the government finding new uses of their newly found knowledge, when the crisis passes, governments can impose new laws that make the emergency rules permanent and exploit them to crack down on dissent and political opposition.
This can happen because the rules implemented during the pandemic aren't enough to address the technologies' usage for a longer term once the pandemic is contained.
What Snowden is trying to say is that, when COVID-19 emergency starts to cease, the effort for governments' respective surveillance program will continue. This is because the authorities have become comfortable with their new power, and they will start to like it.
The proposals to monitor the spread of coronavirus by tracking people's mobile phone location data, for example.
This could potentially be a powerful method to trace the spread of the virus, as well as the movements of people who have the disease. In the future, the method can also be used to track terrorists on the move, or even normal people if the authorities want to.
In China, the authorities have been using thermal scanners installed in public places, like train stations, to identify people with fevers. And in Russia, facial recognition systems are used to catch people who break the government's quarantine rules. In the U.S., the government is said to work with tech companies to help it provide anonymous data for tracking coronavirus. And in India, the government is building a coronavirus tracker app that is powered by people's location data.
Snowden doesn’t dispute the severity of the pandemic. Having infected hundreds of thousands of people and killed tens of thousands, the pandemic is a serious one. What Snowden is especially concerned is about security services that add AI to existing surveillance methods.
“They already know what you’re looking at on the internet,” he said. “They already know where your phone is moving. Now they know what your heart rate is, what your pulse is. What happens when they start to mix these and apply artificial intelligence to it?"
Snowden is concerned that the measures governments introduce to combat coronavirus, will be permanent.