Biomedical Security State, British Edition

Published January 30, 2023

Human Flourishing

First, by way of contextual backdrop, let me offer a quick recap of some relevant developments, which I describe in more detail in The New Abnormal:

  • November 2021: As reported by the New York Times, the Israeli government issued emergency pandemic legislation permitting Shin Bet (their equivalent of the CIA), to access mobile phones and extract track and trace data from suspected covid patients without their knowledge or consent.
  • December 2021: Canada’s Public Health Agency confirmed that it had been extracting mobile phone data from the outset of pandemic to covertly track citizens’ movements, again without their knowledge or consent. Unlike Israel, this was not done legislatively or publicly. The agency confirmed that it planned to expand and continue this program until 2026.
  • May 2022: Vice broke story that over the past two years, “The CDC tracked Millions of Phones to See If Americans Followed COVID Lockdown Orders.” The CDC used phone location data to, among other things, monitor citizens movements at schools and churches. They confirmed plans to use the data for applications beyond covid in coming years. Researchers from Princeton demonstrated that with only four location data points, the supposedly anonymized data could easily be connected to specific persons.
  • Evidence also emerged last year that the CIA has been using unauthorized digital surveillance to spy on Americans. Two members of Senate Intelligence Committee warned that “documents reveal serious problems associated with warrantless backdoor searches of Americans.”

Not to be left out of the digital panopticon game, news from Britain broke this week with the following headline:

The article begins:

A shadowy Army unit secretly spied on British citizens who criticised the Government’s Covid lockdown policies, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.

Military operatives in the UK’s ‘information warfare’ brigade were part of a sinister operation that targeted politicians and high-profile journalists who raised doubts about the official pandemic response.

They compiled dossiers on public figures such as ex-Minister David Davis, who questioned the modelling behind alarming death toll predictions, as well as journalists such as Peter Hitchens and Toby Young. Their dissenting views were then reported back to No 10 [Downing Street, the office of the British Prime Minister].

Documents obtained by the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, and shared exclusively with this newspaper, exposed the work of Government cells such as the Counter Disinformation Unit, based in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Rapid Response Unit in the Cabinet Office.

But the most secretive is the MoD’s 77th Brigade, which deploys ‘non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers as a means to adapt behaviours of adversaries’.

As happened with so many of our federal agencies in the US, which have strayed beyond their original mission of protecting citizens from foreign threats to protecting the state from its own citizens, we see the following developments in the UK:

According to a whistleblower who worked for the brigade during the lockdowns, the unit strayed far beyond its remit of targeting foreign powers. 

They said that British citizens’ social media accounts were scrutinised – a sinister activity that the Ministry of Defence, in public, repeatedly denied doing.

Papers show the outfits were tasked with countering ‘disinformation’ and ‘harmful narratives… from purported experts’, with civil servants and artificial intelligence deployed to ‘scrape’ social media for keywords such as ‘ventilators’ that would have been of interest.

The information was then used to orchestrate Government responses to criticisms of policies such as the stay-at-home order, when police were given power to issue fines and break up gatherings. 

It also allowed Ministers to push social media platforms to remove posts and promote Government-approved lines.

The Army whistleblower said: ‘It is quite obvious that our activities resulted in the monitoring of the UK population… monitoring the social media posts of ordinary, scared people. These posts did not contain information that was untrue or co-ordinated – it was simply fear.’

Last night, former Cabinet Minister Mr Davis, a member of the Privy Council, said: ‘It’s outrageous that people questioning the Government’s policies were subject to covert surveillance’ – and questioned the waste of public money.

Our Missouri v. Biden case and the Twitter Files have revealed these kinds of surveillance and censorship policies to be operating in the US, as I have previously written about here.

This latest story suggests the British government has likewise been engaging in the same totalitarian policies against its own citizens.

I am reminded here of CISA, a little known U.S. government agency that’s been around for only about six years. The Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency was originally set up to protect us from cyberattacks—malware, computer viruses, etc. But a year or so into their existence, CISA leadership decided that their real mission was combatting another kind of threat, which they called—in a brilliant Orwellian euphemism—domestic threats to our “Cognitive Infrastructure”.

Now, just what does this refer to? The new dangerous threats to our cognitive infrastructure are your thoughts, your ideas, the things you express for example on Twitter or Facebook or in the newspaper. With this sleight-of-hand, CISA quickly positioned itself to become the thought police at the center of the US government’s illegal censorship regime.

But back to the UK. The article describes the targeting of one of my favorite British journalists, Peter Hitchens:

Mail on Sunday journalist Mr Hitchens was monitored after sharing an article, based on leaked NHS [British National Health Service] papers, which claimed data used to publicly justify lockdown was incomplete. An internal Rapid Response Unit email said Mr Hitchens wanted to ‘further [an] anti-lockdown agenda and influence the Commons vote’. 

Writing today, Mr Hitchens questions if he was ‘shadow-banned’ over his criticisms, with his views effectively censored by being downgraded in search results. 

He says: ‘The most astonishing thing about the great Covid panic was how many attacks the state managed to make on basic freedoms without anyone much even caring, let alone protesting. Now is the time to demand a full and powerful investigation into the dark material Big Brother Watch has bravely uncovered.’

The whistleblower from 77 Brigade, which uses both regular and reserve troops, said: ‘I developed the impression the Government were more interested in protecting the success of their policies than uncovering any potential foreign interference, and I regret that I was a part of it. Frankly, the work I was doing should never have happened.’

The source also suggested that the Government was so focused on monitoring critics it may have missed genuine Chinese-led prolockdown campaigns.

Silkie Carlo, of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘This is an alarming case of mission creep, where public money and military power have been misused to monitor academics, journalists, campaigners and MPs who criticised the Government, particularly during the pandemic.

‘The fact that this political monitoring happened under the guise of ‘countering misinformation’ highlights how, without serious safeguards, the concept of ‘wrong information’ is open to abuse and has become a blank cheque the Government uses in an attempt to control narratives online.

‘Contrary to their stated aims, these Government truth units are secretive and harmful to our democracy. The Counter Disinformation Unit should be suspended immediately and subject to a full investigation.’

If you scroll to the bottom of the article, you’ll find that the Mail also published an accompanying commentary from the anonymous whistleblower, “This snooping was wrong, it hangs over my proud Army career like a black cloud,” and a commentary from Peter Hitchens, “How shadowy censors tried to remove my ‘unhelpful’ Covid views from YouTube”.

In Britain, Orwell’s country of origin, seven decades after the publication of 1984, it turns out that Big Brother is Always Watching. Perhaps this is a good moment to remind everyone that Orwell’s classic dystopian novel was meant to be a warning, not an instruction manual.

Aaron Kheriaty, MD, is a Fellow & Director of the Program in Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is a physician specializing in psychiatry and author of three books, including most recently, The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State (2022).


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