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Ethical Governance of Surveillance Technologies in Times of Crisis: Global Challenges and Divergent Perspectives

A Multi-Session and Online Conference

Friday 30 October 2020 (9:00 – 12:45, CET) &
Thursday 5 November
2020 (14:30 – 17:45, CET)

The Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges will host this interdisciplinary online workshop examining how crises and crisis-narratives interact with the ongoing transformation in the governance of surveillance technologies in different parts of the world. This event is organised by the research platform on Disrupting Technological Innovation? Towards an Ethical and Legal Framework within the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges.

Conference Theme

The increasing sophistication and globalisation of surveillance technologies has intensified concerns about whether existing governance structures and human rights principles provide adequate protections for individuals.  At the same time, the urgent need for effective coordination of responses to global crises has strengthened calls for solutions that rely heavily on surveillance technologies. Faced with these conflicting concerns, many states are increasingly invoking ‘extraordinary circumstances’ to legitimate the heightened surveillance of individuals. But there are profound differences between and within countries in how much weight is given to appeals to crises. 

The Covid-19 pandemic provides a particularly compelling illustration of this constellation of issues raised at the intersection of surveillance technology, divergent perspectives, and crisis narratives. Taking the Covid-19 pandemic as a point of departure, the workshop will emphasise a comparative approach to this intersection of issues – including comparisons with the role of surveillance technologies in other global crises – with special emphasis on divergent perspectives from across the globe.

One of the defining characteristics of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the heightened awareness of the extent to which one’s behaviour can have dramatic effects on others. In order to  change behaviour and monitor threats, governments around the world are taking a number of ‘emergency’ measures within, or even outside, existing legal frameworks. Contact tracing via smartphones is one prominent example of surveillance technology being used either to produce behaviour change, monitor compliance, or both.

Typically, these measures are presented as temporary. Yet it is widely known that some of the governmental responses to previous crises have been normalised and perpetuated. A similar concern arises with governmental responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and other global crises. But the ethical governance of surveillance technology is not merely a matter of protecting the individual actors from government interference with privacy. Private actors also need to be held accountable, and public-private collaboration regarding digital surveillance can be even intensified during times of crisis.

While the Covid-19 pandemic is a global crisis, governments differ in terms of how they intend to track individuals’ movement and data. This variance gives rise to a further question of the varied acceptability of digital surveillance among different societies. As the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation acknowledged in its June 2019 report, concepts and expectations of privacy ‘differ across cultures and societies’ (p.18). Different justifications can be readily put forward in balancing individuals’ privacy against other interests during times of crisis.

Against this background, the conference will examine various national and regional initiatives taken in response to Covid-19 pandemic in order to collect, store, analyse, and transfer individuals’ data. The conference aims at taking a comparative approach, so that we can compare some of the responses to the pandemic to those of previous so-called crises.

Conference Format

The conference will take place online during two sessions:  Friday 30 October (9:00 – 12:15, Central European Time) and Thursday 5 November 2020 (14:30-17:45, CET). Each interactive session will include presentations, discussions in breakout groups,  and plenary panel discussion, integrating input from the breakout sessions.

To encourage participation among students, an introductory session especially tailored to students will be held on October 22nd, 14:00-15:00 CET. During this session some literature will be presented and discussed which will provide useful background knowledge to the topics of the conference.

Programme & confirmed speakers

For a detailed conference programme, see here.

Day 1:  Friday 30 October (9:00 – 12:15, Central European Time)

SESSION ONE: “Human Rights and Ethics: Possibilities and Challenges for Ethical

Governance of Surveillance Technologies in Times of Crisis”

        Cansu Canca (AI Ethics Lab)

“Ethics of Contact Tracing: Balancing Privacy, Transparency, and Harm”

        Ivo Emanuilov (KU Leuven) & Katerina Yordanova (KU Leuven)

“Back to the Future: Towards Evolutionary Regulation of Post-Crisis Surveillance”

SESSION TWO:  “The Role of Cultural Factors in the Governance of Surveillance

Technologies in Times of Crisis”

        Pak-Hang Wong (Universität Hamburg)

“Human Rights, Human Roles, and the Case of Contact Tracing Apps”

        Tereza Hendl (LMU München) & Tiara Roxanne (DeZIM Institut Berlin)

“Digital Surveillance in a Pandemic-Response: What Bioethics Needs to Learn from Indigenous Perspectives”


Day 2:  Thursday 5 November (14:30 – 17:45, Central European Time)

KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Karin Loevy (New York University)

SESSION THREE:  “Rethinking the Construction of Governance and Privacy in Times of Crisis”

        Patrick Taylor Smith (Universiteit Twente)

“No States of Exception: A Neo-Republican Theory of Just Emergency Powers”

        Jenneke Evers (Universiteit Leiden) & Marjolein Lanzing (Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen)

“Misconceiving Privacy: A Critical Perspective on Privacy as a Regulatory Governance Tool for Surveillance Technologies During the Covid-19 Crisis”

        Niklas Hultin (George Mason University, Fairfax Virginia)

“Coronavirus Surveillance, Human Rights, and Privacy in West Africa”


The conference is convened by:

        Joel Anderson

        Machiko Kanetake

        Lucky Belder

        Thijs Ringelberg

Start date and time
End date and time

Register online