Quarantine Measures must be controlled by the Public

Samvel Martirosyan

Media researcher

We live in a wonderful new world. All the movie-like dreams of pessimists are coming true. There is a total zombie apocalypse around us (only the light version, without zombies.)

Governments control people as much as they can. In some places people are not allowed to turn off their phones; in other places they are obligated to make daily selfies and send them to the authorities; somewhere else people are watched with the help of drones, etc.

And all of this is being done for our sake, for the people, for security and safety.

The system of controlling has started working in Armenia as well. Obviously, the epidemic has affected the whole society, the governing system, the economy and everything. The public and the government have crossed the Rubicon, and have to implement restrictions.

States of emergency have not happened a lot in the Armenian history. I, personally, can recall four cases. All of them lasted less than this one (actually, it’s not clear how long this one will last.)

This is the first state of emergency around which a public consensus more or less exists.

Moreover, a part of the society (now it is hard to asses without sociological research, which part exactly) has a positive attitude towards the controlling system that should be introduced in Armenia in early April.

The system to be introduced is similar to the one that works, for example, in Taiwan where the quarantine measures were eased, which has more or less breathed life into the economy of the country. When someone contracts the virus in Taiwan, all the contacts of that person get immediately isolated.

This, indeed, can decrease the transmission rate of Coronavirus and solve lots of issues. But…

But we should realize that, for the sake of fighting against the epidemic, we have passed a law that creates an extreme system of controlling the citizens.

You may hear an opinion that there are no specific changes because the special services could always do it even before declaring a state of emergency. Let’s look at what has changed.

Actually, the system stipulates a very serious control of citizens – the government will constantly receive information about citizens’ locations, based on the regularly-collected data of mobile operators.

Here, it should be noted that it’s not about the information received through GPS. Do not delude yourself that you will avoid this system if you have an old phone, instead of a smartphone.

The next thing is the phone call logs. This is not about phone tapping – the system is not going to listen to the contents of the calls. However, it does not mean they will not get a lot of data from you.

The special service will receive the data related to all of your phone calls and SMS. They will know whom you have talked to, when it happened and how long it lasted.

These are very sensitive data that, in a lot of cases, can tell more about a person’s contacts than the mere content of a phone call.

And the combination of all these data makes people more vulnerable, increasing the possible negative impact. Especially taking into account the fact that this huge volume of data will be processed by using modern technologies.

Could this really happen in the past? Most probably, power structures had access to some of those resources. But a few important things were missing at that time, whereas now:

a. Not separate individuals but EVERYBODY will be monitored at the same time, and this will allow disclosing the hidden relations between people.

b. There will be a technological system that will process the data in an online regime, receiving the data from ALL the service providers.

The combination of these two points makes the operation of this system unique not only for Armenia but many other countries as well.

In any case, the decision has been already made. Most probably, the system already works. Hopefully, it will help decrease the negative impact of Coronavirus upon our country, and we will figure out how we can decrease the negative impact of the system upon us.

Now let’s answer to one of the most important questions – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Let’s figure out what should we do in this situation not to put at risk the public, the democracy or the personal lives of citizens.

a.The government should clearly inform who has produced the system and how many organizations have been involved in it. If there are any foreign partners, it should be also transparently reported because the leakage of the data to special services of other countries can have disastrous consequences.

b.  There should be clear information about all the institutions and persons that have access to those data. This refers both to government-related and private institutions.

c. People should be informed where these data will be collected and preserved. Are they secured enough from possible attacks and leaks? Has a system safety audit been conducted, taking into consideration that the system is being introduced at an extremely rapid pace, which stipulates a possible negative impact upon the quality?

d. The public should be regularly informed how the data are collected, preserved and processed.

The most essential point that could be removed from this list and be presented as a separate requirement (because there is a need for them not just related to this situation) is launching an institution of public control.

This institution should make sure that the state of emergency is not being used to endanger civil liberties, due to the malice or the corruption of some officials, or simple negligence.

The most logical thing will be launching a special controlling commission at the National Assembly, with a high percentage of opposition representation.

Relevant experts should also be involved because the topic requires a profound knowledge of technical issues.

Without logical transparency and control, the system will hardly inspire confidence, and its implementation can have lots of consequences that are predictable at this moment but could be non-predictable in the future.

                                                                                                                                            Samvel Martirosyan


The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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