Covid-19 pandemic: surveillance and human security

By Marta Rullán

Madrid, May 26 (efe-epa).- Intelligence services are locked in an expensive race to secure the best available and next generation surveillance technology, a race that analysts expect to intensify once the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic is over as countries around the world start to prioritise state security over the freedoms of individual people.

With the new threat of bioterrorism, which could also be used as a tool to keep populations in fear, the fight against Covid-19 has provided the world’s leaders with a legitimate reason to further limit civil freedoms in democracies as well as in more authoritarian regimes.

The collapse of the global economy is likely to herald a rise in inequality and an increase in the number and ferocity of the sort of civil protests that filled the world’s streets until the pandemic struck.


Artificial intelligence, technological tools for population control and surveillance and the analysis of big data are already essential for global intelligence services, but these activities will become even more important and powerful in the wake of the pandemic.

“We are in the fourth industrial revolution, in a completely new era (…) countries are spending dizzying amounts on AI, and China is leading the way,” Spanish reserve colonel Pedro Baños, an expert in strategy, defense, intelligence and security, tells Efe.

Secret services “are very aware of technology’s capacities and are investing significant resources,” a former member of the Spanish intelligence services who wishes to remain anonymous explains, as “their own power, efficiency and efficacy depend on it, both defensively and offensively.”

For Baños, it is clear that AI “will mean an upheaval in both intelligence and military circles”, pointing to the development in leading nations of “unmanned aircraft, some of which have supersonic capabilities (…) that can learn air combat on their own”.

But, undoubtedly, the biggest challenge is analysing the mountains of personal data that security services are stockpiling and which will require “very sophisticated technology, from AI to algorithms,” Baños says.

“There is fierce competition to reduce the time it takes to access the information required and to acquire as much as possible,” says the former member of Spain’s intelligence services of more than a decade.

“We cannot forget that an intelligence service’s raw material is data and information that is not publicly available. They need to access and transform that information into a competitive product known as ‘intelligence’, data that has been interpreted and integrated into our established collective understanding,” he explains.


The reserve colonel and former intelligence officer agree that, despite the technological progress seen over recent years, intelligence services cannot substitute personal contacts, forcing them to equip themselves with more experts in issues related to the pandemic.

Agents “who use relationships with other people to acquire information or to influence third party decisiones (…) are fundamental when it comes to applying context to the data and interpreting intentions,” the former intelligence officer says.

He points to “what happened in China or Iran: faced with insufficient official information and minimum cooperation with the WHO, countries such as the United States, Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom or Germany, to name just a few, are likely to have strengthened their Human Intelligence (HUMINT) procedures so that their network of agents can report on the actual scope and impact of the disease or the intentions of their leaders”.

Baños has “no doubt that, from now on, like what happened with terrorism or cybersecurity, intelligence technicians will pay more attention to and have more experts on” pathogens and epidemics.

The former intelligence officer agrees: “the recruitment of biologists, physicians, epidemiologists, or anthropologists is likely to increase. Qualified professionals are needed to understand what we are talking about.”

“That is what really worries me about ‘health intelligence’”, he says, before warning: “it should not widen its sphere of action, nor be allowed to collect epidemiological data about our behaviour on a mass scale.”


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