Associate Professor Veena Dubal published an op-ed in The Guardian warning of the dangers of relying on unfettered surveillance to track the spread of COVID-19. “No matter how much we want to return to ‘normal,’ we must be wary of additional for-profit use of our data,” she writes.
Some companies “are expanding our existing surveillance economies in the name of ‘public health.’ Data-gathering and for-profit tracing technologies are becoming the pre-eminent solution to save lives and to liberate us from the confinement of physical isolation. The only catch, the techno-capitalists tell us, is that we have to trust them and change our privacy expectations,” Dubal writes.
In the U.S., she writes, Google and Apple have joined forces to create their own panoptic solution. “Together, these tech rivals promise to leverage their existing control over 3 billion people’s operating systems and phones to ‘contact trace,’ enabling third parties (governments and private entities) to know if users have crossed paths with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.”
“While some of this may sound hopeful, the intertwining of our existing massive surveillance infrastructure with public health goals should sound many alarms. The developing notion that biometric and location data are now health data is itself misleading. The dangerous conflation glosses over the real problems and differential outcomes that arise when our public health infrastructure becomes linked to profit-based data gathering.”
There are two paths before us, Dubal writes. “We can blindly accept that technology capitalism will liberate us from this pandemic and the physical isolation that has come with it. Or we can use this moment to responsibly contain the virus while critically interrogating the totalitarian possibilities embedded in unbridled data collection. If we choose to remain critical, then we must demand massive restrictions on collection, the construction of data walls, and the maintenance of existing biometric surveillance bans. We must also ensure that any data collected be used only to combat the spread of the virus and be deleted in a timely manner.”
You can read the full opinion piece from The Guardian, “The Expansion of Mass Surveillance to Stop Coronavirus Should Worry Us All,” here. Dubal’s work uses empirical methodologies and critical theory to understand the impact of digital technologies. You can read more about her research here.