COVID-19 shakes the world again. Now it seems to be the right timing to dedicate some thoughts and care to another important aspect that defines our lives and our society in this historical period: information technology.
For us it is not that difficult to perceive that the corona crisis is still in its “active mode”. It fills and defines all of the diverse forms of news that designed the beginning of 2021. What is more surprising is that COVID-19 is still trendy and able to shift our perspectives, flipping the world upside down. Along with all the overwhelming events happening around us, not everyone seems to see the slow but constant establishment of a new era, related to its infectious charm based on unilateral surveillance.
An era that in the paradox is very democratic, as it affects all people.
This kind of surveillance derives from the concept that has been called by Shoshanna Zuboff, Charles E. Wilson Professor Emerita at Harvard Business School, as Surveillance Capitalism. As her International Bestseller The Age of Surveillance Capitalism describes, it claims unilaterally that almost every human experience in the digital ecosystem has been seen as free raw material for translation into behavioural data. Some of this data applies to product and service improvement while the rest is declared as “behavioural surplus” feeding well-known machine learning algorithms. The first result is a product that could predict – with variable accuracy – what people will like, think and even expect. Soon or later, all of these predictions will become part of all of the oldest and new marketplace based on our voices, personalities and emotions.
Now the type of surveillance I’m talking about is the one operated by government agencies that are harnessing surveillance-camera footage, smartphones location data and credit cards purchase records to trace the recent movements of coronavirus patients. The purpose appears to be almost clear: know more about the virus transmission chain.
I’m sure you heard that some governments led authorities to analyze location data transmitted by citizens mobile phones to determine how people were obeying the rules imposed during the planned lock-down. Typical distances of travels to work and home were tracked and rates of people moving “too much” were officially disclosed. At the end of the day, smartphones are the best witnesses able to pinpoint our moves, knowing before us if we were exposed to the virus. A cache of our mobile phone location data is everything needed to fulfill such duty.
If surveillance capitalism is based on data derived by our likes attitudes, activities and posts on social media, purchases, cookies and previous digital behaviours, these form of “health” surveillance are based on data recorded by security agency technologies interested to hinder this terrible virus. What we can do as response is trust in the effort to maintain a balance between public safety and personal privacy, on a global scale.
I know that this could sound like science fiction – with some cyberpunk peaks – but it is our new reality. There are many undefined gateways along a venture we just need to accept as it is, even if we have just a partial vision of the new “public prevention and control forms”.
It is possible to think that humanity could split up, facing this new form of technological progress: a few privileged individuals can take advantage of new technologies, creating a huge “providing information caste” of citizens who will eventually be the “knowledge” suppliers to the ones that have no idea of it. Despite an overall level of good education, today there are citizens that cannot fully understand how relevant information may eventually determine new forms of internal hierarchies.
If I must think about some previsions, I can bet that in some decades from now on, people will not remember the pandemic so much. Instead, they will say: this was the moment when the digital revolution became a reality for everyone! With full access granted, state incentives, massive campaigns done by tech companies about their new sexy phones and all sort of public and private promotions, the access to technology has never been so immediate.
The new Digital Era is cherishing.
Since the beginning of 2020, we have been working from home with personal devices, communicating with friends and spending our free time digitally trying to replicate the same entertainments and hobbies that made our day outside of the office/ domestic environment. This time we were familiarizing with new tools giving our living room (and similar) a complete re-style with all sorts of fancy wallpapers.
We agreed, in some way or another, to spend most of our lives online. Did we have a choice? This act manifested its advantages, but it also carries some risks within: in the worst case, the wrong use of information, choices and new digital habits that could lead to new forms of permanent control.
In some states, surveillance systems directed to track the population (like fine-grained location tracking, body temperature and facial recognition) were already well advanced before the outbreak of the Corona crisis. In western Europe the situation is still quite different: for now, we maintain more resistance and clear rules to this sort of massive control. However, to face this unthinkable corona pandemic, liberal democracies could also abandon their aversion to monitor their citizens when the bigger scope is related to safeguard the overall citizens’ health. Many things that were unthinkable in the West just a year ago have suddenly become acceptable as a result of the pandemic. Some examples could be the storage of health data, the provision of names and addresses when visiting a restaurant, the regulation of how many people can be invited to a private party at home, and so on.
Most people currently accept these measures, as there is no other choice available if you need to cope with a new controlled and safe form of social gathering. After all, surveillance per se is not a bad thing when it helps to maintain order when billions of people that could affect others are the subjects involved.
Thinking on the current and past events related to the Corona Crisis, surveillance methods appear as one of our best defense systems against the (still!) challenging escalation of this pandemic. In the past, only a superficial control of people was possible, but thanks to our current technological solutions we, techy, could go much further. You, as a State, can look inside people’s bodies and see if someone is sick. This is already practiced in some countries, where apps store the most important health data of citizens, and the state can read them out and compare them en masse. These measures have a practical scope: the earlier an epidemic is detected, the easier it is to stop. But the general citizen must be careful and aware regarding the “terms and conditions” this methodology is conducted.
As an example, totalitarian countries consider their strategy against Corona a success. I mean, we could expect their regime to refine and expand the methods used and maybe transfer/sell them to other countries. Continuous biometric surveillance of the population would allow the detection of threats, other than Covid-19.
Such as the annual flu or how many people suffer or dye from cancer. With these data is easier to infer how many therapy stations and machines are required to save lives. I may say that this is a positive development from a public health perspective. The crucial question is how to deal with this responsibility of information knowledge. After all, considering its potential, complete surveillance would not only be used to improve health care, locally and worldwide.
We no longer need a spy on the street to monitor people. Instead, there are cameras, microphones or sensors. There are even in our smartphones, without whom we feel lost. The evaluation of the data volumes can be handled by an artificial intelligence that can even calculate how a person under surveillance is likely to behave in the future. For the first time in history, total surveillance is possible. You can learn more about people than they know about themselves. This is not something bad either.
What we should, therefore, understand better is the idea behind and scope of the new trend posed by the current crisis: that digital surveillance technology will be legitimized by the health crisis worldwide – even in democratic societies that previously resisted surveillance.
Europe has strict data protection laws and democratic rules. Still, in an area of conflict between health and privacy, most of us will almost always be prepared to sacrifice the latter.
Let’s assume that the corona situation is now getting worse. Or at some point, there is another dangerous mutation of the virus, in the kind of the latest one registered in England. Then we arrive at a moment when governments and citizens are faced, again, with a choice: one option is to go into months of lock-down, the economy suffers massively and you risk to lose your job like thousands of other people. The other option is that you, as a citizen, agree to allow the state to monitor you completely so that it can intervene immediately with all the required measures if you come into contact with an infected person. How would you decide? I suspect that many people would probably choose the second option.
My idea is that we, as educated citizens have to be in no way against improving health prevention through surveillance. But it must always be balanced and bound by democratic rules. If the government increases surveillance of citizens, citizens must therefore increase as response government control. Everything must be transparent, as we assume the status of equal players in the mission to beat the virus and save what we’ve built in centuries. Therefore, all health data collected must be available only to those authorities dedicated to fighting pandemics such this one. Everything else related to these data, as transfer to other state authorities and co-analysis, should be banned.
The actual world status, dealing with such an unbearable health threat has changed the way information is diffused and written in newspapers. We have little or no information about how the data and efficiency of all the sort of Corona Apps we installed in our phones are working and making prevision on the evolution of the disease. We have still lots of people that die on the globe because they eat too much then because they have too little to eat. People still die from their old age than from infectious diseases. In the latest months, more people are suffering from delays in their cancer treatments because there are not enough personnel that could handle long sessions (and side effects, I must add) of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. This is especially true for the youngest and sensitive of us, that requires even more “safety” in the hospital in that period.
We have learned to work together efficiently, exchanging ideas and knowledge to find solutions to this and many other “tricks” that the context/ environment we deal with offered us. When we don’t focus on the negative around us, it is not difficult to realize that if each of us behaves better, the world will also be better. It is not a law of nature that we have to fight each other or go against the system. If there is conflict, it is mostly due to how our behaviour and ideas have been shaped by us and the surrounding environment misleadingly. The same thoughts are applied to technology, that saves our lives daily and can potentially silence us as human beings. It is not different today than it was thousands of years ago.
It is important to remember where we stand and which events defined our inherited past, to take wise, present, logical decisions about our future.