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Beware Surveillance State Response

April 28th, 2020 by dk

I traveled across the Soviet Union with a group of college students in 1982. We had passenger vans shipped over from Finland. We drove those vans across the USSR, stopping at campgrounds along the way. Our travel plans had to be approved in advance.

These were the last years of status quo for the Soviets. Mikhail Gorbachev had not yet risen to the top of the governing Politburo. Glasnost was still a few years in the future. The Russian countryside was vast and desolate. We shared the road with truckers, but almost no one else.

Every few hours, we had to stop at a roadside outpost. Armed soldiers collected all of our passports, matched faces, counted heads, scribbled some notes, returned the passports and waved us on. We had one breakdown along the way, when a rock smashed  one of our windshields.

At the next checkpoint, the soldier asked us why it had taken us so long. Any delays might indicate an unauthorized detour. Our missing windshield was explanation enough and they waved us on. That low-tech surveillance memory came rushing back this week, as America struggles for a strategy to restart its economy before COVID-19 is defeated.

Massachusetts has a plan to hurry its citizens back to work. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab has developed an app that tracks location data and allows users to check if they have crossed paths with any infected persons. MIT’s Safe Paths app is modeled after Singapore’s TraceTogether app, which has been an effective tool against the spreading coronavirus.

It works like this: Singapore authorities won’t allow anyone on the subway without the TraceTogether app on their smart phone. Users must mark the car number they are riding. The app automatically logs the time when each user rode in that particular subway car. If anyone later tests positive for the virus, others who rode in the same car can be alerted.

I don’t worry that such a high-tech tracing tool won’t work in the United States. I worry that it will. We’ll all be able to return to our jobs and lives sooner, but only by allowing this Soviet-style surveillance. It won’t be easily undone. Unlike Singapore, we cherish our freedom and our privacy. If we give them away to hasten normalcy’s return, we will never get them back.

Until there’s a vaccine or we reach herd immunity, we shouldn’t pretend that “normal” can be achieved. Australian infectious-disease modeler Emma McBryde put it best: “It is very hard to design a ‘little epidemic.’”

Leaders are weighing whether the cure of economic shutdown is worse than the disease of COVID-19. But the balance doesn’t end there. The cure of individual surveillance will be worse than the disease of temporary unemployment. Will we trade our freedoms for economic stimulus?

The reconnaissance ratchet moves in only one direction. It always tightens, never loosens. The Soviet Union controlled its people with unrelenting monitoring, augmented by on-the-ground gossip — surveillance and snitches. If we accept those same controls, history will rightly ask who really won the Cold War.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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