Public tip lines: The enemy of resilience

April 21, 2020

Too much medicine is bad for us. So is too much public surveillance, even when it is supposed to protect us from harm.

Certainly, surveillance and detection of a disease are critical to its containment. Disease must be tracked and then containment measures such as physical distancing and quarantine must be monitored and enforced.

In the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the inability to adequately surveil and detect has left most public-health bodies, including those in Canada, “flying blind.”  Spurred on by the need to “flatten the curve” of community transmission and a desire to return to “normal” as quickly as possible, governments around the world are pushing the limits of public surveillance to harvest data and ensure conformity to emergency regulations.

New technologies that remotely and rapidly collect and analyze data are being developed and employed. The technologies themselves can be of concern. Fellow Ploughshares researcher Branka Marijan has written about the hidden bias that mars the artificial intelligence (AI) employed in them – a bias that reflects the unexamined beliefs and prejudices of software programmers (mostly young white men).

Another problem relates to how the data is and will be used. Data collected now to overcome the pandemic could be used for other purposes by government, the military, and the police. And so alarm bells are going off in civil society. Project Ploughshares is among the organizations that are tracking and monitoring this development closely.


Not all of our current surveillance practices rely on new technology, however.

Public tip lines are being used to fill in information gaps, especially at the local level. They are low-tech, but they work because friends, neighbours, and strangers are able to detect and willing to report signs of suspicious or prohibited behaviour.

Some tip lines are reportedly operating in Canada: in the Ontario cities of Barrie and London, as well as in the province of New Brunswick. New Zealand and Spain are using them. China offers individuals monetary rewards for information about anyone who is breaking quarantine orders.

Analysis of this low-tech, human-centred approach to public surveillance can provide insights into the limitations, fallibilities, and potential dangers of too much surveillance.


In the years following World War II, the fear of Communism motivated many civil-defence efforts in the United States. This era saw the rise of surveillance institutions including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, founded in 1947), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI, founded in 1908, but ramped up by J. Edgar Hoover in response to the Red Scare) and the National Security Agency (NSA, founded in 1952). All employed tactics that involved covertly infiltrating civil-society organizations and communities.

Individual citizens were also pulled into this process. Stephen Young and others have detailed the rise of Rumor Control Centers in inner cities, thought to be breeding grounds of civil unrest. Intended to collect early warning signs of potential social unrest, often through tips telephoned in by members of the community, these centres were integrated with local policing and intelligence units charged with containment.

This model of public eyes and ears was revived after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Although cancelled in November 2002, Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System) was intended to recruit volunteers from those working with the American public. Truck drivers, letter carriers, and utility workers, among others, were to look for and report potential terrorist activity. The American Civil Liberties Union called it “neighbors spying on neighbors.”

Other formal and informal efforts to tap the public for information have persisted. Homeland Security still designates September 25 “If You See Something, Say Something®” Awareness Day. The FBI has reported a significant number of investigations apparently based on information solicited by its “See Something, Say Something” campaign.

Canada is not immune to such “neighbourly” surveillance. In 2015, the federal  Conservative government proposed the creation of RCMP public tip lines to report “barbaric cultural practices.” Last year, the Ontario government encouraged snitching on teachers who used the updated-but-banned curriculum on sexual education.

But evidence suggests that our efforts to watch one another may do more harm than good.


To be sure, citizens are always obliged to report activities that are clearly illegal or dangerous to others. However, tip lines often fall short of this bar, operating in the murky realm of suspicion. And suspicion is not certainly.

Human surveillance systems – particularly those rooted in suspicion – are fallible. Humans tend to scrutinize more closely that which we see as different, as the “other.” And finding the “other” is often the very point of surveillance. This is evident with the Rumor Control Centres. It is evident in the public surveillance of “barbaric practices.”

But what if YOU are the “other”? How does this sort of surveillance affect you?

When it comes to public-health tip lines, the information that we report on the lives that we choose to scrutinize is likely to reflect and amplify existing differences. Our personal notions of what healthy and responsible behaviour looks like are reinforced by our own views of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, lifestyle, neighbourhood, neighbour. This is true even for those acting with the best of intentions. And sometimes intentions are far from good.

Such scrutiny can add to the hardships and dangers vulnerable communities must deal with. Minority communities and the poor are already subjected to more heavy-handed policing and community surveillance. Now COVID-19 is inflicting a disproportionate toll on these same groups. It is amplifying social disparity.

We don’t all have the same capabilities for self-isolation and quarantine; for mask-wearing and handwashing; for solitary, once-a-week shopping. The quality, amenities, and safety of our shelters vary widely.

But reporting such disparities through public tip lines is not only of questionable value and potentially harmful; it can also be counter-productive.


Too much surveillance is bad for resilience.

Michael Bryant of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association argues that “‘snitch lines’ can escalate fear, anxiety and panic at a time of crisis.” In other words, they undermine both the narrow goals of policing and surveillance and the broader imperative of social resilience.

Fear and suspicion can destroy trust. And we need trust during a pandemic. We need trust in public health. We need trust in government. And we need trust in each other. Trust, an essential element of social resilience, is the glue that makes collective action possible.

When trust is absent, individuals are less likely to follow public-health guidelines or to seek help when they need it. Communities are less likely to work together.

We can see this in action. Countries with higher levels of social trust are doing better at fighting COVID-19. The United Nations reports that societies “with higher levels of social trust and connections are more resilient in the face of natural disasters and economic crises.” But when friends, neighbours, and strangers begin policing our behaviours, the threads holding us together begin to fray.


Instead of a social paradigm based on fear and suspicion, we need one based on compassion and trust. In this paradigm, there is a limited role for surveillance, one that may not extend into our local communities and social interactions.

Other methods are used to encourage the public and private behaviours that stem the flow of disease. Clear and persistent messaging. Strengthening the bond of trust between society and its political and public-health leaders. The result is compliance based on informed consent, not coercion.

With this approach, we recognize and accept that we have different abilities and privileges. Different behaviour is no longer seen as bad or deviant. We don’t shun the other; we reach out and offer help and acceptance. Instead of policing others, we focus on our own responsibilities and capabilities.

We will eventually be free of COVID-19. But the social structures and strictures that we put in place now could live on. Let us think carefully about what we want our future world to look like.

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