Published November 29, 2021
(This post originally appeared in Aaron Kheriaty’s Substack newsletter “Human Flourishing.” Read other issues and subscribe to the newsletter here.)
Readers of this newsletter may recall, if they glanced at the “About Human Flourishing” page, that I included the following descriptor when I launched:
The real division today is no longer left/right, liberal/conservative, or even Democrat/Republican. It is between those who will accept a technocratic biosecurity surveillance regime and those who will resist.
My posts so far have focused mostly on my legal efforts to oppose coercive vaccine mandates, to advocate for transparency from public health agencies, and to promote fair and just Covid policies. So what is the “technocratic biosecurity surveillance regime” mentioned here—besides being a mouthful of jargon?
I could begin with a definition of these terms, but let’s instead start simply with a headline from today’s New York Times, “Israel’s spy agency will track Omicron patients’ phones.” The article reported:
The Israeli domestic intelligence agency has been granted temporary permission to access the phone data of people with confirmed cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant in order to trace who those people met recently… Using emergency legislation, the Israeli cabinet voted on Sunday to permit the spy agency, the Shin Bet, to track Omicron patients’ phones….
The government and its supporters said the decision was necessary to quickly identify potential virus carriers who need to be tested and quarantined, in order to curb the spread of the new variant. “We have indeed reached a point at which we do need a ‘Big Brother’ keeping track of where we go,” Limor Yehuda, a criminology professor, wrote on Monday in Maariv, a centrist newspaper.
This is the equivalent of the CIA tracking American citizens—not those suspected of being traitors or terrorists, but those suspected of having an infection. This is not an isolated development. The Covid pandemic has proven a very useful opportunity for elites with global economic and political interests, in collaboration with the intelligence community, to accelerate the acceptance of a powerful and invasive digital infrastructure. This system is already used for tracking and “surveilling” ordinary citizens, with the eventual goal of more directly monitoring and controlling our behavior.
Public health and safety during a declared state of emergency has proven the ideal opportunity to accelerate these rapid social changes. In the past two years we have collectively accepted being enrolled as willing participants in massive social experiments—in the name of public health and safety—that would never have been accepted under ordinary conditions. Hence, “biosecurity”.
In this novel paradigm, the real sovereign or locus of political authority resides with the person authorized to declare the “state of exception” or state of emergency. That person at the federal level is now Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of HHS, a lawyer with no medical knowledge and no public health experience. In the state of exception or emergency, which Becerra recently renewed again to almost no public notice or media attention, ordinary constitutional rules are suspended and emergency powers are delegated (e.g., to governors, public health officials, administrative state bureaucrats, committees, CEOs, etc.)
From this it should be clear that by the word “regime” I do not necessarily mean a particular government or party in power, but rather the network of public and private institutions, whether at home or abroad, that have worked in concert to advance the biosecurity model during this state of emergency. Those governing and directing this novel paradigm are mostly an elite class of unelected but credentialed experts and managers—hence the regime is “technocratic”.
I predict that if the rising biosecurity surveillance regime does not meet more robust resistance in 2022, it will increasingly demand ever more intrusive and burdensome interventions into the lives, and bodies, of individuals. On this social paradigm, citizens are no longer viewed as persons with inherent dignity, but as fungible elements of an undifferentiated “mass”, to be shaped by supposedly benevolent health and safety experts.
The marriage of global public health with novel digital technologies of surveillance, personal data extraction, information flow, and social control now makes possible novel forms of domination unimaginable in the totalitarian regimes of the past. Whether we agree or disagree with this or that public policy, this broader development should concern each of us.
In our present circumstances, resisting the biosecurity surveillance regime will require critiquing and rejecting some of the most disastrous Covid policies of the past two years, including widespread lockdowns (the first time in history we have quarantined healthy populations during a pandemic) as well as coercive vaccine mandates and passports. Resistance efforts are necessary to slow the rapid acceptance of the new paradigm. Free people, acting together, must clearly demonstrate that there are strict limits to what citizens will accept under the rubric of a public health emergency. So far over the past two years citizens have delineated virtually no limits to these powers. We have yet to collectively say “no”. Whether a broad refusal will happen with vaccine mandates remains an open question.
American universities serve as ready incubators to run these experiments before they are rolled out on a mass scale. Consider, for example, the system implemented earlier this year at my own institution, the University of California Irvine, before there was any hint of vaccine passports at other venues in the U.S.:
Measures of this kind serve to get ordinary people used to things that two years ago would have sounded insane. Could we have imagined in 2019 having to show a QR code testifying that we had obeyed a public health order involving injecting a novel vaccine into our body—with the routine release of previously protected private health information to a complete stranger—just to board a plane or a train, or to enter a restaurant or other public venue? The “ZotPass” implemented at UCI, or the vaccine cards we currently flash on our way in the door, are crude and rudimentary tools of the new regime. The mechanisms of surveillance and control will become ever more refined, with QR codes giving way to retinal scans, and climate change or other social issues overtaking Covid as the latest public health “crisis”.
The urgent task today is to begin to see, and help those around us see, why we should and how we can (1) recognize, (2) understand, (3) reject and (4) resist this new despotism. Things are moving astonishingly fast, so the time to begin is now.
Stay tuned for more on this theme in the new year.
Aaron Kheriaty is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he directs EPPC’s program in Bioethics and American Democracy.