The novel coronavirus pandemic is causing tens of thousands of deaths, wreaking economic devastation, leading to lockdowns across much of the world, and upending societies and their assumptions. But going forward, one of its most significant legacies will be the way that the pandemic dovetails with another major global disruption of the last few years—the rise and spread of digital surveillance enabled by artificial intelligence (AI).

Public health measures have always depended on surveillance, but that has been especially true in governments’ responses to the coronavirus. China, after initially suppressing news of the outbreak in Wuhan, used its arsenal of surveillance tools to tackle the pandemic. These techniques ranged from deploying hundreds of thousands of neighborhood monitors to log the movements and temperatures of individuals, to the mass surveillance of mobile phone, rail, and flight data to track down people who had traveled to affected regions. But democratic countries in East Asia also used expansive surveillance powers to battle COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. South Korea harnessed closed-circuit television (CCTV) and credit card data to track the movements of individuals, and Taiwan integrated health and other databases so all Taiwanese hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies could access the travel information of their patients.

As they struggle to contain the spread of the virus, Western liberal democracies are looking to China’s tools for limiting the outbreak and wondering whether they should adopt some of those authoritarian methods. Over the past decade, China has been building a digital authoritarian surveillance state at home while vying with the United States on the international stage to determine global standards and shape key network infrastructure, exporting 5G technology and Orwellian systems of facial recognition abroad. The overlap of these two global disruptions—the epidemiological and the technological—will shape the next few years of global history.

East Asian countries have demonstrated that a robust regime of surveillance is essential to fighting a pandemic. Western democracies must rise to meet the need for “democratic surveillance” to protect their own populations. But what models can the West demonstrate that take advantage of the great benefits of AI-enabled surveillance without sacrificing liberal values?

Although poorly understood at the time, one of the biggest long-term impacts of the September 11 attacks was expanded surveillance in the United States and other democracies, by both public and private sectors. Similarly, one of COVID-19’s most important long-term impacts will be the reshaping of digital surveillance across the globe, prompted by the public health need to more closely monitor citizens. The stakes are high. If democracies fail to turn the future of global surveillance in their favor, digital authoritarian competitors stand ready to offer their own model to the world.


Battling epidemics has long required the monitoring of populations to understand and then limit the spread of disease. One of the founders of epidemiology pioneered the use of surveillance to tackle infectious disease (just a mile from the London medical school where I studied). He was a doctor named John Snow.

Asiatic cholera first arrived in the United Kingdom in 1831. That first wave killed thousands and outbreaks recurred for years afterward. One of those, in 1853, killed over 10,000 Britons.

In August and September 1854, the London neighborhood of Soho endured a terrible outbreak. Over three days, 127 people around a single street died. Snow lived nearby, and his local contacts allowed him to monitor the epidemic. He combed the district, interviewing the families of victims. His findings led him to a water pump that proved to be the source of the outbreak. With a microscope, he found suspicious “white, flocculent particles” in the water. About ten days into the outbreak, he persuaded local authorities to remove the pump handle as an experiment. Cholera cases in the neighborhood swiftly dropped. Snow went on to carefully trace cases, compile data, and persuade authorities and medical practitioners of the connection between water and the spread of cholera.

Since Snow’s day, every functioning state has built institutions that attempt to safeguard public health. Modern public health methods and practices have saved hundreds of millions of lives. And each generation since Snow has used ever more powerful tools of surveillance in the service of the common good.

The United Kingdom became more democratic even as the state adopted more powers of surveillance.

Indeed, more broadly, surveillance was central to a great deal of social and economic progress over the past two centuries. In the United Kingdom, key nineteenth-century key advances—such as those enabled by the Factory Acts that protected child and adult workers—required new regimes of inspection. The initial four-man inspectorate founded to enforce limits on child factory labor was tiny, but its precedent was enormous. Authorities created new police forces not on existing or overseas models of the secret police but instead to be “consistent with the character of a free country.” The British example also illustrated how proliferating habits of surveillance didn’t undermine democracy; the United Kingdom’s parliamentary system became more democratic even as the state adopted more powers of surveillance. For good or ill, the story of economic and political development in many democratic countries is inextricable from the expansion of the state’s ability to monitor its citizenry.

Of course, not all of the state’s uses of surveillance are benign. Throughout the twentieth century, the governments of ostensibly democratic countries used intrusive surveillance techniques such as wiretaps to monitor political rivals and suppress dissent. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government expanded its powers, including broadening warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency and establishing the domestic Total Information Awareness project that aimed to identify terrorist suspects through sifting vast amounts of digital data. The turn toward greater surveillance after 9/11 had knock-on effects in the private sector: the United States did not adopt commercial privacy protections that would have guarded the data of individuals, thereby enabling the business models of companies such as Facebook and Google that profit from gathering such data.

COVID AND CONTROL                                       

Just as the September 11 attacks ushered in new surveillance practices in the United States, the coronavirus pandemic might do the same for many nations around the world. Afflicted countries are all eager to better control their citizens. Every functioning state now has a public health strategy to tackle COVID-19 that emphasizes both monitoring residents and trying to influence their behavior. But neither the United States nor European countries have used the widespread and intrusive surveillance methods applied in East Asia. So far, the Western approach promises to be much less successful than East Asian strategies.

Consider the strategies of five East Asian countries—ranging from the democracies of South Korea and Taiwan to the authoritarian Chinese state—that all relied on prominent surveillance methods. South Korea has so far successfully curbed the spread of COVID-19 using classic public health surveillance through large-scale testing. But Seoul has also intrusively tracked down potentially infected individuals by looking at credit card transactions, CCTV footage, and other data. Local authorities have released personal data, sometimes with the consequence that individuals can be identified publicly. Korean officials can enforce self-quarantine through a location-tracking smartphone app.

Taiwan has kept the number of cases very low by employing strict surveillance of people coming into the country and widely distributing that information. In February, for instance, Taiwan announced that all hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies across the country could access their patients’ travel histories. Integrating public- and private-sector databases in such ways would prove difficult in the United Kingdom or the United States or under existing European Union regulations. Just as in South Korea, officials in Taiwan use phone apps to enforce the self-quarantine of suspected infected individuals.

The Western approach promises to be much less successful than East Asian strategies.

Hong Kong issues all new arrivals an electronic wristband that monitors whether they violate quarantine. Singapore has kept a lid on the pandemic using CCTV footage and the investigative powers of the police: refusal to cooperate with public health requirements is illegal.

China’s sheer size makes it the most significant case. Beijing has successfully curbed the spread of the disease. Yes, the pandemic originated in China, but that doesn’t diminish the tangible success of China’s strategy of heavy surveillance. Its “grid management” system divides the country into tiny sections and assigns people to watch over one another. Over a million local monitors log movements, take temperatures, and enforce rules about residents’ activities.

At the same time, China has also harnessed its panoply of digital tools. State-run rail companies, airlines, and the major telecom providers all require customers to present government-issued identity cards to buy SIM cards or tickets, enabling unusually precise mass surveillance of individuals who traveled through certain regions. Color-coded smartphone apps tag people as green (free to travel through city checkpoints) or as orange or red (subject to restrictions on movement). Authorities in Beijing have employed facial recognition algorithms to identify commuters who aren’t wearing a mask or who aren’t wearing one properly.


Although many East Asian countries have been able to contain the disease, Western democracies seem to have been caught unprepared. Since public health strategies depend on the surveillance of local populations, Western governments will face huge pressure to increase their surveillance capabilities to ward off future pandemics. Epidemiologists, for instance, still anticipate a flu pandemic in the near future that may kill tens of millions.

As a public health emergency, the coronavirus pandemic highlights the strengths of the powerful surveillance tools often deployed by authoritarian states such as China. Liberal democracies do need to find ways to take advantage of AI-related surveillance, while ensuring that these technologies don’t infringe dangerously on the rights of individuals. And they must contend with China’s ambitious global effort to pose an alternative system to the liberal democratic one.

China exports its digital authoritarian model through endeavors such as the “Digital Silk Road,” the technological arm of China’s infrastructure and investment Belt and Road Initiative. That effort alone has amassed over $17 billion in loans and investments, including funding for telecom networks, e-commerce, mobile payment systems, and big-data projects around the world. Beijing competes fiercely with democracies in shaping the digital future—wrestling, for instance, over technical standards bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) at the United Nations.  

There is nothing oxymoronic about the idea of “democratic surveillance.”

Western liberal democracies must be unafraid in trying to sharpen their powers of surveillance for public health purposes. There is nothing oxymoronic about the idea of “democratic surveillance.” After all, in the past two centuries, the United States and United Kingdom have simultaneously strengthened their democratic institutions while increasing their powers of surveillance. Looking ahead, liberal democracies should identify which methods practiced in East Asia to contain COVID-19 are worthy of emulation and avoid those requiring intrusive surveillance. In particular, Western countries should learn from the speed and scale of interventions in East Asia.

Every functioning, large democratic state in normal times employs thousands of “John Snows”—public health officials and the facilities they manage for contact tracing and testing—but democracies also need to build reserve capabilities to rapidly scale that capacity up to tens or hundreds of thousands of John Snows. These reserve surveillance forces should be made democratically accountable under legislation, and they should be embedded in national public health bodies such as the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in local public health organizations. Such a structure would eschew the use of security services, the police, the military, and intrusive mass surveillance. Public health data should be ferociously ring-fenced and siloed and not routinely augmented by credit card, CCTV, or mass immigration data. As demonstrated by Taiwan, government transparency and an engaged civil society are important in battling a pandemic. The private sector can help bolster reserve capabilities to surge ventilators or medical tests, but democracies should steer digital technology companies away from data grabs and toward developing effective, transparent tools that aggressively shield individual privacy. A reserve army of John Snows must be built to boost public health efforts, not to hoard personal information for other uses.

After developing this model domestically, democracies must try to export it globally as the world rebuilds in the wake of the pandemic. Democracies must redouble efforts to ensure that the global standards—for AI, digitally connected objects (such as cars or refrigerators), and even the Internet itself—now being shaped in the ITU and other forums do not have authoritarian habits of surveillance baked into their design. Similarly, they must work through international agencies such as the World Health Organization, as well as academic and other networks, to ensure that democratic principles govern international thinking about public health. Democracies must recognize that while intrusive surveillance may have helped China control the spread of the disease, authoritarian disingenuousness and a lack of transparency were a prime cause of the outbreak in the first place. But if they are to be successful in their global competition with authoritarian states such as China, liberal democracies cannot simply preach. They must also demonstrate success.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • NICHOLAS WRIGHT is a medical doctor and neuroscientist who works on emerging technologies and global strategy at University College London, New America, and Georgetown University Medical Center.
  • More By Nicholas Wright