The temptation of coronavirus surveillance

Navneet Alang

There is no shortage of things to worry about these days. Alas, you can add another to the list: so-called "covidiots": a trending tag on Twitter about people, say, gathering on beaches or in bars, ignoring all the warnings, or simply just not practicing social distancing.

It can be infuriating to see people act that way. It's enough to make one wonder: Can't we do more than simply shame them? Shouldn't government start to use the enormous technology apparatus at our disposal to enforce these vital public health policies?

As Sidney Fussel writes in Wired, "the rapid spread of the disease has prompted even some traditional defenders of personal privacy to acknowledge the potential benefits of digital tracking." The idea is that everything from anonymized smartphone location data to facial recognition systems could be used to track who has the disease, how it is spreading, and to enforce self-quarantine measures. One such privacy advocate, Maciej Cegłowski, is now arguing "the terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists... Why not use it to save lives?"

Depending on how you feel, that may seem reasonable, or it may sound worrying and draconian. These are unprecedented times, and that means that normally unthinkable things — enforced quarantines, fines for congregating in public places, etc. — are now on the table. But simply expanding the private surveillance industry to the state goes too far. Instead we should focus on established procedures to slow the spread of the virus, and err on the side of individual privacy.

That can seem like a naive view. After all, as more than one report has suggested, if strict measures are not enacted up to 2.2 million Americans could lose their lives to COVID-19. That is a staggering, horrifying figure, and it means we have to do everything we can to contain the spread of the virus before it overwhelms an already fragile health system.

It thus behooves us to look at how the countries that experienced the virus earlier are dealing with things. Most obvious is China, where people have been asked to sign up for an app by Ant Financial (an Alibaba affiliate closely tied to the government) and are assigned a color — green, yellow, or red — for whether they are healthy, or are required to be isolated or quarantined. But as The New York Times reports, the app appears to share data with police, and in order to move about freely, people have to show their status to police.

That kind of authoritarian policy seems clearly a bridge too far, reflective of China's relative lack of liberal freedoms. But even in a democratic country like South Korea, site of a major outbreak, surveillance has been used to track the spread of the disease, where a sophisticated mix of tracking credit or debit card purchases and CCTV cameras have been used to trace and prevent spread of the disease.

Given the way those countries have succeeded in flattening the curve, should we then also consider something similar?

The primary focus is on something called contact tracing: tracking the contact between an infected person and others so that the infected person can be quarantined and those they were in contact with can be identified and tested. That would involve leveraging the location tracking in smartphones, monitoring social media, and potentially, also facial tracking. It's already in process: surveillance company Palantir, for example, is already working with the administration.

Here's the problem: the experience of the post-9/11 surveillance apparatus suggests that once enacted, new regimes are almost impossible to pull back. The broad programs unveiled by people like Edward Snowden are largely still in place. More to the point, those kinds of systems are overwhelmingly used to target the marginalized, as detailed in this report by The Century Foundation. It isn't just about abstract questions of privacy; once you start tracking people based on their health, what's to stop companies or states from then punishing them for various "offenses"? Consider, for example, that the surveillance technology deployed to track terrorism ended up being used to surveil the Black Lives Matter Movement.

There is also another issue. The trouble is that the choice we are presented with posits individualist resilience on the one hand (i.e. people should govern themselves) versus authoritarian control on the other. What is missing is the idea that COVID-19 is best addressed through collective action: social distancing, mass testing, quarantining, and isolation. If we were in a situation in which the only way to combat the virus were draconian measures, then it acquiescing to the demands for surveillance might make sense. But it isn't, and that makes the calls for surveillance misleading and misguided.

Technology is always ambivalent, and always has both benefits and drawbacks. But surveillance in particular is a dimension of tech that is explicitly about enacting power. And power, once given, is not only hard to take back, it is immensely difficult to wield fairly. In times of genuine fear, it can be easy to turn to a desire for authority; we must resist it, and in the face of a worrying global pandemic, turn to each other instead.

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