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Surveillance Capitalism In The Age Of Coronavirus

Apps are sprouting up all over the place in lieu of Coronavirus. Some apps show the virus by the numbers. Others let People to give to those in need. And some apps go Orwellian, asking neighbors to report on each other, report groups of people to the police, or only allow people to travel if their health records are links to government apps.

Why do I bring this up?

The other day I commented on an article someone wrote on LinkedIn, Fighting coronavirus with digital innovation, DIY and distancing by Chris C. Anderson. In the article, the author mentioned apps deployed in Asian countries that track people in the name of Coronavirus. I commented on the article that those apps seemed a little too “Big Brother” for my liking. I wasn’t the only person in the comments who thought so.

Then, someone replied to my comment.

They wrote, “Lily Snyder lol you are a tech enthusiast?”

What does that mean? I didn’t realize being a tech enthusiast and pro government surveillance was mutually exclusive.

Surveillance capitalism: “the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.”

Surveillance capitalism coined by Harvard Professor, Shoshana Zuboff

I think part of being a tech enthusiast is digging into all parts of technology and how it’s used in society. It’s easy to jump on the latest gadget as the next best thing but I also think it’s important to take pause to look at the possible long term consequences of technology.

I realize we’re in a global pandemic. People from all over the world comment on articles on the internet and they don’t all have the same worldview as me. That’s fine.

But for a stranger to try and call out my love of technology because I don’t automatically agree with a list of “helpful” Coronavirus apps? Not cool.

In his LinkedIn post, Anderson recognized the risks that come with using apps to track the virus. He wrote, “while there might some concerns around if it’s a good idea or not to use mobile phone apps to track the spread of Covid-19, there are now a number of cases where governments are using mobile digital technology to do even more than tracking the spread.”

I’m sure, technology like mobile apps can be used to reduce Coronavirus infenctions. My concern is, most people already don’t know (or don’t care) about what data they give to tech companies (like Facebook). What happens when they freely handover more sensitive data like their health to the government?

I can’t speak for other countries, but if apps like that were required in the United States, it would cross a line. Once you hand over that much information about yourself, once you start using a government app like that, it will always be there. The precedent will have been set that it’s OK for the government to have all that information on you and make decisions about you based on it.

Technology Review made a good point that “online witch hunters” who look to identify and out coronavirus carriers have “created an atmosphere of social fear. So have leaks of patient information, some of which has been proved to be entirely false.”

What are these COVID-19 tracking apps?

App: self-quarantine safety protection

Country: South Korea

  • Developed by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety
  • Not mandatory (a phone system is in place for government check ins)
  • “allows those who have been ordered not to leave home to stay in contact with case workers and report on their progress.”
  • Uses GPS to keep track of citizen’s location to make sure they are not breaking their quarantine.

App: TraceTogether

Country: Singapore 

  • Opt-in app (They ask the app run with full permissions.)
  • TraceTogether “requires Bluetooth and location services to be turned on when another phone running the app comes into range exchanges four nuggets of information – a timestamp, Bluetooth signal strength, the phone’s model, and a temporary identifier or device nickname.”
  • “If the need arises, this information can then be used to identify close contacts based on the proximity and duration of an encounter between the two users.” – gov.sg
  • According to the government website when, “DORSCON levels return to Green, the app will stop running, and you will receive an update on how you can delete your data.”

App: “Beijing Cares” and “Beijing Health Buddy” 

Country: China

  • These apps are integrated into WeChat
  • People under quarentine have to enter their daily temperature and health status.
  • Users require a “healthy status” on the app to enter buildings and malls.

App: “SydeKick for ThaiFightCOVID”

Country: Thailand

  • Anyone travelling in from a high risk country is required to download the app.
  • “The information comprises phone numbers, passport numbers, name and address.”

These apps are just a few examples of the amount of data collected and surveillance enabled for governments around the world. Even if the app used anonymized map data, you still have to be able to get in contact with the individual to let them know they are spreading the disease, or keep them in quarantine.

Governments may have the health of their countries in mind, deploying these apps in good faith, however tech companies continue to overreach into our lives. They think they know best.

In an open letter, signed by several dozen prominent technologists, executives, and clinicians, they called the tech industry to decide what is best for us recommending that mobile operating system vendors like Apple and Google add an opt-in feature like TraceTogether.

The letter states, “In the longer term, such infrastructure could allow future disease epidemics to be more reliably contained, and make large scale contact tracing of the sort that has worked in China and Korea, feasible everywhere.”

Except that it’s not working for the Chinese South Korean people. In China, “some citizens say the codes appear to be applied arbitrarily or based on which province they are in. There is also evidence the apps feed data back to the authorities.” In South Korea, “authorities have sent out texts detailing the movements of specific people infected with Covid-19, stirring up public shaming and rumor-mongering.”

Governments may turn off their apps after their countries return to “green status” but who is to say technology companies will turn off that amount of data collection once it’s turned on?

“Smartphone surveillance might seem like a good solution to tracking the spread, but it is far from guaranteed to work. And it might do more harm than good.”

Will Knight, Wired

Are tracing apps the best way to fight COVID-19?

According to this Wired article:

  • “the nature of Covid-19 transmission suggests an app might only provide a very crude picture of the spread”
  • “A phone is typically able to determine its position with an accuracy between 7 and 13 meters in urban areas… and accuracy may often be less precise.”
  • “The Covid-19 virus seems to spread between people who are within a few feet of each other.”
  • “At least 20 percent of a population would need to contribute for such an app to be effective for modeling a disease and predicting its spread.”

This hasn’t stopped the White House from asking Silicon Valley for help – not in tracing citizens but combating conspiracy theories and misinformation. “White House officials urged the tech industry to coordinate its efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus conspiracy theories on major social media sites, urging the companies to swap intelligence about harmful hoaxes before they go viral…” (source).

The White House also hopes to make more information about Coronavirus available to tech companies so they can “tap its powerful systems for crunching and analyzing data — to better understand the virus.”

In times of uncertainty we look for hope. It’s all we have. Silicon Valley is known its creative thinking and solving problem capabilities. I’m sure we can find the right fit for technology to help combat this virus without the tech becoming a virus in of itself.

And to the lady who left that snarky comment on LinkedIn? You better believe I’m a tech enthusiast.


Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

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