Public Health has stated that this surveillance was carried out to better understand people’s response to pandemic measures. Yet, it was done without the consent or awareness of the surveilled. The agency has also stated that it now plans to track cell phones for at least five more years for analytical purposes.
It has already been revealed that the Canadian military carried out surveillance operations on domestic populations throughout the pandemic. These operations included analyzing and collecting social media posts by visitors and patients at long term care homes, after the military was deployed to them, and passing critical comments on to government personnel. In addition, political targets, including Black Lives Matter activists, were surveilled for unspecified reasons.
In 2020, the military began an operation to manipulate public opinion to increase adherence to government direction and reduce civil disobedience. This was an explicit attempt to manufacture consent and control subjects. The techniques used were drawn directly from military operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Over one-million-dollars was spent on training for this operation before it was shut down. Even after being officially shut down, the operation continued for six more months.
In another operation, a military propaganda unit in Nova Scotia forged a document from the Department of Lands and Forestry warning residents that wolves had been reintroduced into the area. They also tested propaganda systems by playing wolf calls from loudspeakers. This was unrelated to health measures but exploited present conditions. The military claims that this particular operation was the result of incompetent individuals and a lack of oversight. However, other operations demonstrate that it was not isolated.
The military exploited the pandemic to experiment with the application of psychological operations developed for warfare to domestic populations. It has been claimed that the military did not receive permission from the federal government to carry this out. However, regardless of whether or not governmental permission was explicitly given, the campaign must be viewed in direct relation to other state efforts to combat the pandemic and control populations.
The prevalence of right-wing conspiracy theories and a general desire to aid COVID response efforts quells much critique. However, the state has consistently put the interests of business owners and professional classes over the interests of the workers. It has enabled the wealthiest elites to reap profits, landlords to raise rents, developers to drive up housing prices, and corporations to capitalize on the need for vaccinations. It is time to acknowledge that it is necessary to support public action to stop the pandemic and simultaneously condemn repressive state action.
As the Public Health Agency of Canada has demonstrated, government bodies are state, not public, institutions. And the state has responded to the pandemic by attempting to exert extreme control over populations. Rather than restructuring systems of inequity and exploitation, which allowed the pandemic to unfold so destructively, it has focused upon policing.
These authoritarian acts cannot be viewed in isolation and should not be understood as errors in judgement. Since the nineteenth century, Canada has consistently surveilled populations in an attempt to control and quell political dissent. The actions of the military and Public Health are not new. They are part of an ever-intensifying practice. Unprecedented conditions established by the pandemic have provided a particularly intense environment in which these efforts have concentrated.
The Public Health Agency secretly tracked the locations and movements of most people in Canada to evaluate the effectiveness of lockdown measures – measures of physical public control. This surveillance was only revealed after the fact. This is cause for concern, regardless of claims of benevolence. The agency has since stated that data was “de-identified” and, therefore, that there are “no concerns under the Privacy Act.” Such a response attests to the normalization of mass surveillance and the perception that the consent of those surveilled does not need to be given. The fact that this was undertaken in relation to the pandemic should not reduce its significance; nor should the fact that this was carried out by a health rather than military body.
By adhering to lockdown measures and public health guidance, people put immense faith in the hands of state authorities. Public Health exploited this trust. The connection between this surveillance and previously identified military operations cannot be ignored as the military has been deployed specifically to carry out public health activities during this pandemic.
We should be cultivating a consensual and collaborative response to COVID-19. The state’s reliance on repression does not allow for this. Far from addressing the societal factors which have contributed to the severity of the pandemic, it continues to reinforce them. Without effectively critiquing structural issues, this response will continue. The risk, and inevitability, of repetition will remain.
Luke Beirne is a freelance writer who lives in Saint John, on unsurrendered and unceded Wolastoqey land.