Sunday 12 April, 2020

Surveillance and the pandemic: it doesn’t have to be a nightmare

This morning’s Observer column:

The capabilities of this technology would make totalitarian leaders drool. On the other hand, it appears to be very effective in helping countries to manage the crisis. And it is probably not a coincidence that the democratic societies that appear to have coped best – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, for example – have evolved from, er, authoritarian pasts. In normal circumstances, liberal democracies would have to think very hard about intruding so comprehensively into their citizens’ privacy.

But these are not normal times, and it seems likely that western governments will move to deploy smartphone tracking as a way of monitoring and controlling the pandemic. When they do there will be an explosion of (understandable) outrage from civil liberties organisations, but governments will ride roughshod over these with reassuring bromides about how such “emergency” measures will be rolled back once the crisis has passed. Recent history (think 9/11) does not provide much comfort here. And we are going to have zoonotic-virus crises for the foreseeable future, so the “war against the virus” will become like the war on terror.

In that sense, we seem to be heading into a nightmarish future. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

Read on

MORE This is a fast-moving topic. Since I wrote the column lots of useful related stuff has appeared. For example:

  • An excellent White Paper by The ACLU which provides useful background on some of the privacy issues under five headings: 1. What’s the goal of the deployment? 2.What data? Is it aggregate and anonymized data, or individually identifying information? How precisely can the information pinpoint individuals’ locations? 3. Who gets the data? Does the government get access to the raw data, is it shared only with public health entities such as qualified academics or hospitals, or does it remain in the hands of the private entity that originally collected it? 4. How is the data used? For centralized government action,such as issuing or enforcing quarantine orders,or for punitive measures? 5. What is the life cycle of the data? When will it be deleted?
  • Apple and Google are collaborating on cross-platform technology to do some of this stuff. The joint venture includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing. First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores. Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.
  • Cory Doctorow wrote an accessible explanation of the proposed technology, and followed it up with a link to a paper by French cryptographer Serge Vaudenay arguing that there are some potentially severe risks in the proposals advanced so far — “sick and reported people may be deanonymized, private encounters may be revealed, and people may be coerced to reveal the private data they collect”.

The overall project, though, is a fascinating example of collective IQ in action.

“Death comes to all — but in America it has long been considered reasonable to offer the best chance of delay to the highest bidder”.

Terrific New Yorker essay by Zadie Smith which manages to be both sardonic and impassioned.

Not that there is anything ridiculous about trying to lengthen the distance between the dates on our birth certificates and the ones on our tombstones: ethical life depends on the meaningfulness of that effort. But perhaps nowhere in the world has this effort—and its relative success—been linked so emphatically to money as it is in America. Maybe this is why plagues—being considered insufficiently hierarchical in nature, too inattentive to income disparity—were long ago relegated to history in the American imagination, or to other continents. In fact, as he made clear early on in his Presidency, entire “shithole” countries were to be considered culpable for their own high death rates—they were by definition in the wrong place (over there) at the wrong time (an earlier stage of development). Such places were plagued in the permanent sense, by not having the foresight to be America. Even global mass extinction—in the form of environmental collapse—was not going to reach America, or would reach it only ultimately, at the very last minute. Relatively secure, in its high-walled haven, America would feast on whatever was left of its resources, still great by comparison with the suffering out there, beyond its borders.

This is about the US but it reminds one of why the ubiquitous government trope that “we are all in this together” is so nauseating.

Quarantine diary — Day 22


Errata: The link to the Toby Ord talk mentioned in yesterday’s edition was missing. It’s here