In an interview with VICE this week, exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden gave his thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic and the global response to the disease. Critical of governments who were caught off-guard by the pandemic, which he said was one of the most foreseeable disasters that could befall humanity, he also warned that authoritarian leaders would use the crisis to curb liberties and put their citizens under further control.
“There is nothing more foreseeable as a public health crisis in a world where we are just living on top of each other in crowded and polluted cities, than a pandemic. And every academic, every researcher who’s looked at this knew this was coming. And in fact, even intelligence agencies, I can tell you firsthand, because they used to read the reports had been planning for pandemics,” Snowden said.
VICE then asked if totalitarian countries like China were more prepared to deal with widespread pandemics than Western societies. China famously put Wuhan under an extraordinary lockdown after finally acknowledging that they had another SARS virus on their hands. Measures included actually welding people into their homes to prevent them from spreading the disease. But, as Snowden notes, there is not yet any firm evidence that China’s brutal crackdown actually helped them stop the disease any better than its Western counterparts.
“I mean, there are arguments being made that China can do things that the United States can’t. That doesn’t mean that what these autocratic countries are doing is actually more effective,” he said.
He also rejected the idea that we could trust the numbers coming out of Beijing.
“I don’t think we can,” he said. “Particularly, we see the Chinese government recently working to expel Western journalists at precisely this moment where we need credible independent warnings in this region.”
VICE then asked how government leaders might take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to crack down on civil liberties.
“As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world,” Snowden warned. “Do you truly believe that when the first wave, this second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept? No matter how it is being used, what is being built is the architecture of oppression.”
To say that Snowden is a polarizing figure would be putting it mildly, but he’s on to something when it comes to his warning of the disappearance of our civil liberties. We have to take our hats off to Trump for taking as light a touch as possible during this pandemic, which is certainly not something we can say for many state governors and local officials. Even so, it pays to stay wary, even of the federal government, at a time like this. Powers once granted (or seized) tend to be much more difficult to take back.