Big Brother Watching the Plague

Big Brother Watching the Plague

Armenia fights coronavirus by tracking citizens. Is it a “setback to democracy" or a necessary measure?

Text: Tigran Zakaryan


The Armenian parliament adopted on 31 March a temporary law which entitled the authorities to track calls and locations of citizens for the sake of combating the spread of the novel coronavirus. Under the law, during the state of emergency, declared in Armenia since 16 March, all the mobile operators will provide the government details necessary to determine the location of their customers.

The law also prescribes that the data collected by the authorities will be deleted within a month following revocation of the state of emergency.

The reason behind this measure, the government says, is to establish possible transmission routes of the virus.  

The law was upheld unanimously by 71 MPs, none of whom were from the opposition. Earlier in the day of 31 March the opposition MPs attended the extraordinary session however refused to vote, causing the bill to fail in second reading. The My Step faction quickly overcame the hurdle by calling a second extraordinary session in the evening and mobilizing the MPs from the ruling My Step faction.

The opposition criticized the bill even before its adoption on multiple levels, arguing that it will not be efficient and that it violates human rights, saying it was unconstitutional and could be used to bug political opponents or ordinary citizens.

Naira Zohrabyan, the head of the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee and a member of the Prosperous Armenia Party called the law a “setback to democracy" while leader of another opposition party, the Bright Armenia, Edmon Marukyan expressed his doubts over the expediency of the law.  Initially even members of the ruling party, including Parliament Speaker Ararat Mirzoyan were not very much convinced of the efficiency of the law.

Another My Step MP, Narek Zeylanyan argued that “People can get infected in stores” adding that “Calls are not an indication of physical contact.” However in the end all of them voted for the law.

Civil society organizations and activists do not seem happy with the law, to say the least. “The law does not meet the principles of human rights and freedoms,” activist Artur Sakunts was quoted as saying, “Limiting movement is enough of a preventive measure to fight the coronavirus epidemic, so the law will be absolutely ineffective. It’s an absurd initiative which will lead to a weakening of the government’s legitimacy.”

A prominent cyber security expert, Samvel Martirosyan, wrote on Facebook: “A public control over collection of data and its subsequent removal is needed. We should not rely on the good will of the government in this matter.”

A number of CSOs, including several watchdog organizations on 2 April made public a joint declaration urging authorities to ensure utmost transparency on the institution engaged in and public control over collecting, storing and processing the relevant information. The declaration also called on the authorities to report on specific results of tracking locations and calls.

Earlier Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan dismissed critical remarks, pointing to the fact that the law does not give green light to telephone tapping otherwise than provisioned by earlier laws. In his words the government did not need any of such measures as it enjoyed “the trust of 70-80 per cent of the population”.

Meanwhile the issue of trust is something often recalled throughout the world as Covid-19 is making its sinister way at a growing speed across the world.

A renowned historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari in article “The World after Coronavirus” published a couple of weeks ago argues that the key of combatting coronavirus lies not only in the trust towards governments but also in informed decisions taken by the citizens.

“When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population,” the intellectual opines.  

Technologies of surveillance are put into the service of combatting the Covid-19 in several countries across the world, with various grades of trust towards the government.

Obviously the Armenian case cannot be called a comprehensive “under the skin” surveillance attempt as the civil society and the opposition can effectively watchdog the government agencies involved in it. What Armenian government and its citizens needs first of all, is to be able to make informed decisions on all levels.

The government will soon need to channel more funds for scientific research in all fields, as the experience showed that crises like this need not only biologists, but also economists, sociologists and other experts in seemingly discrepant areas.  

The citizens also will need to understand their important share of responsibility for the situation, as ultimately the need of surveillance became plausible only after a general failure to contain the spread of the virus and proper observing of the lockdown regulations.

Another concept which will be highly needed in Armenian society during the coming weeks will be social solidarity, as many among the less prosperous co-citizens will be forced to break the lockdown for the sake of earning some money much needed by their families. Support by more well-off layers of the society and government’s urgent interventions in the matter should serve each and every citizen to survive and move forward Armenia after this ordeal.