Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Permanently Expand Government Powers

  • James Crabtree
  • Robert D. Kaplan
  • Robert Muggah
  • Kumi Naidoo
  • Shannon K. O'Neil
  • Adam Posen
  • Kenneth Roth
  • Alexandra Wrage
| May 16, 2020

Ten leading global thinkers on an expansion of government powers.


In the Post-Pandemic World, Big Brother Will Be Watching

By Stephen M. Walt


Governments around the world have assumed unprecedented control of their citizens' daily lives in response to the coronavirus. Democracies and dictatorships alike have closed borders, imposed quarantines, shut down much of the economy, and implemented a variety of testing, tracing, and surveillance regimes in order to contain the infection. Those that acted fastest and adopted more stringent measures have been most successful. Leaders who denied, dissembled, and delayed are responsible for thousands of preventable deaths.

As infection rates decline and effective treatments become available, many countries will gradually relax most of the restrictions that are now in place. Some of the leaders who assumed emergency powers during the crisis may relinquish them. But get ready for the new normal: Political opportunism and fear of a new pandemic will lead many governments to leave some of their newly acquired powers in place. Expect to have your temperature taken or throat swabbed when you travel, and get used to having your phone observed, your picture taken, and your location tracked in many countries—with the use of that information not always restricted to matters of public health. In the post-coronavirus world, Big Brother will be watching.


The Public Good Requires Private Data

By Bruce Schneier

There's been a fundamental battle in Western societies about the use of personal data, one that pits the individual's right to privacy against the value of that data to all of us collectively. Until now, most of that discussion has focused on surveillance capitalism. For example, Google Maps shows us real-time traffic, but it does so by collecting location data from everyone using the service.

COVID-19 adds a new urgency to the debate and brings in new actors such as public health authorities and the medical sector. It's not just about smartphone apps tracing contacts with infected people that are currently being rolled out by corporations and governments around the world. The medical community will seize the pandemic to boost its case for accessing detailed health data to perform all sorts of research studies. Public health authorities will push for more surveillance in order to get early warning of future pandemics. It's the same trade-off. Individually, the data is very intimate. But collectively, it has enormous value to us all.

Resolving the debate means careful thinking about each specific case and a moral analysis of how the issues involved affect our core values. The answers for law enforcement, social networks, and medical data won't be the same. As we move toward greater surveillance, we need to figure out how to get the best of both: how to design systems that make use of our data collectively to benefit society as a whole, while at the same time protecting people individually.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Crabtree, James, Robert D. Kaplan, Robert Muggah, Kumi Naidoo, Shannon K. O'Neil, Adam Posen, Kenneth Roth, Bruce Schneier, Stephen M. Walt and Alexandra Wrage.“How the Coronavirus Pandemic Will Permanently Expand Government Powers.” Foreign Policy, May 16, 2020.

The Authors

Stephen Walt