Digital surveillance by governments for public health is suddenly high on global agendas.
Here in the UK, the Isle of Wight is a giant laboratory for a Coronavirus contact tracing app. There’s a definite logic to it. If populations were under a tight enough regime of surveillance, their movements recorded, where people go and who they come into proximity with logged, and all the information made available to public authorities, then a potentially game-changing option to control contact diseases would become available. Infected people and those they have been near to could be dissuaded if not prevented from coming into contact with anyone else. Provided widespread testing is implemented, NHSX or another app would enable better contact tracing. App successes are already claimed by other countries, notably South Korea.
Yet, enabling the government to monitor the whereabouts and social interactions of citizens has not always gone well. Rather than go into a lot of historical detail, for those not already persuaded by the dystopian dangers of population scale state surveillance, I would recommend Henckel von Donnersmarck’s cinematic masterpiece (on the Stasi), The Lives of Others (2006). Sceptical Scot readers, more mindful of dystopia, should watch it too if they haven’t seen it, but the message it carries, as with Monty Python’s notorious Perth Pink, ‘a wine not for drinking’, is ‘BEWARE’.
For critics, it isn’t that we’re looking at the thin end of the wedge, with a dystopian future some distance away. Social theorist Shoshana Zuboff for one, sees the door already wedged half open. The technology that makes digital surveillance ready to go is already in our pockets. The location services and Bluetooth functionality embedded in our smartphones along with the personal data we donate to tech giants, while clicking away the terms and conditions regarding its (mis)use without a second glance, already make the sort of intrusive surveillance depicted in the movie ‘Minority Report’ more of a science reality than science fiction.
The film adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel shows Tom Cruise fleeing through a clothing store with biometric recognition threatening to give him away. Zuboff sees the freedom trade-off, already upon us, as an unwitting capitulation to capitalism. Just as native Americans apocryphally exchanged Manhattan for glass beads, seduced, according to colonial accounts, by technological novelty, so we forfeit freedom for shiny things. With the game already afoot, little wonder then that the UK Government’s policy, as The Ada Lovelace Institute so eloquently puts it, to ‘Exit Through the App Store’, has materialised faster than an effective scheme to distribute PPE.
Through our dual penchant for novelty and convenience we have already opened ourselves up to surveillance according to scholars. This complicity in our own surveillance, is something encapsulated by the sociologist Michael Foucault (1926-1984) in his reworking of the notion of the Panopticon. Where Zuboff describes a Skynet-like capitalism endangering freedom, Foucault identifies increasing political control, the defining governmental modus operandi within modernity, as the enemy to liberty. In trading freedoms for extended security, populations acquiesce to their own subordination and governments reciprocally function to offer new securities by watching over us. In short, Foucault sees citizens wanting authorities to take away freedom in return for better governance with government increasingly able to oblige.
For Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017), also inspired by the Panopticon, the existential question is an even bleaker one of freedom versus un-freedom. Without the focus on complicity, due in part to personal experience living under totalitarian systems, humans for Bauman, have little choice but to live under the surveillance and corrective intervention of state actors. Ironically, the fact that many of us are already skittering down the slippery slope to complete data insecurity in a Facebook frenzy seems reason enough for some to argue that there isn’t a problem.
Security and surveillance
Typically, security has been the context for ramped-up surveillance. The U.S. Patriot Act is an exemplar of how democracies enact surveillance in times of national crisis often with populist support. Health motivates the second great Faustian Pact between populations and their governors. In return for the liberty to move freely without restriction, to meet others when and where we choose without official scrutiny, we gain the promise of epidemiological shelter.
Such bargains predate 5G of course. From medieval times, plague (generally a contact disease) has encouraged citizens to support draconian movement restrictions imposed by authority. Great plague walls were erected in Europe including a mur de peste separating Marseille from the rest of Europe. Roll forward to today and it is a Coronopticon that threatens to curtail the movements of citizens. The government, not wishing to spook a sympathetic majority, puts no numbers on the scale of any likely restrictions nor indeed their duration. Ministers fully appreciate that there are civil liberty issues and appear minded to give us no more Coronopticon than we want. Problematically, most people, present readership excepted, are not critical about a great many things, particularly when the dangers seem abstract. When presented with a health versus personal data protection question the grave implications of the former seem much more comprehensible and persuasive than the latter.
Of course, all surveillance is not intrinsically bad. Something relatively unobtrusive enabling the user to make their own decisions based on risks that are properly explained and with properly ensured safeguards and accountability, is one thing, especially if it is to be a temporary measure – just until a vaccine is available. Whereas something akin to the ankle bracelet worn by parolees is something entirely different. The distinction seems clear enough and yet the slippery slope looms precariously in front. What allegedly works for COVID-19 would work for any contact disease one might suppose. According to Public Health England, over 17 thousand people die from seasonal flu in England in an average year despite the availability of vaccines. Aren’t they worth sacrificing some freedom for too? That flu figure is 600,000 deaths worldwide, according to the WHO and over a million for Tuberculosis. While you might question the numbers after expert concerns over ‘number theatre’, according to the leading statistician David Speigelhalter, whatever the true value there are huge numbers of lives that could be saved by enhanced contact tracing.
Thirst for data
And let’s not forget, new diseases emerge frequently. In the current crisis we’ve been forced to reflect on H5N1 (the highly pathogenic avian flu from 2003), SARS (also 2003), Mexican Swine Flu (2009), MERS (2012). It is not inconceivable that a reason for extending rather than ending population level surveillance is just around the corner. There will be strong support too. The current, entirely rational craving for data is driven by epidemiologists, statisticians and modelers amongst others. In epidemiology, the surest way to arrest a pandemic contact disease is to eliminate contacts. We’ve tried to do this with the blunt instrument of lockdown. The preferred route out of lockdown appears to be an almost insatiable scientific thirst for data. What do scientists not want to know! Crucially they want to know similar things to what repressive governments seek.
‘When did you last see your father?’ illustrates the sort of police state rarely known in Britain. Today’s technologies are more subtle but their potential for behaviour control and misuse more far reaching than knocks on the door in the dead of night. There really are terms and conditions that we should scrutinise before installing apps.
Leaving aside questions of effectiveness, of which there are many, we have already seen mission creep during this crisis with police at first advising lockdown etiquette before switching to more conventional enforcement. Would a voluntary app relying on goodwill endure a second wave, a long wait for a vaccine, or, what seems almost certain, the next novel virus? Even if the government is well intentioned, as many people doubtless think, are they competent to build a secure system? As the Scottish Government pauses for reflection, declining to adopt NHSX, we have an opportunity to ask these questions.
Exit through the App Store? Should the UK Government use technology to transition from the COVID-19 global public health crisis – 20 April 2020 | Ada Lovelace Institute; The age of surveillance capitalism : the fight for the future at the new frontier of power, Shoshana Zuboff; How Big Tech plans to profit from pandemic, Naomi Klein, Guardian, 13 May;
Featured image: William Frederick Yeames, And when did you last see your father?, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain