The expansion of mass surveillance to stop coronavirus should worry us all

Hunkered down in our homes for weeks on end, we long to be free. We nostalgically imagine our lives before the pandemic – recalling what it was like to live in a social world: to dine with friends at a neighborhood restaurant, to visit our elderly parents. Those of us lucky enough – so far – to be personally untouched by death and suffering are inevitably wondering: when can we stop living in fear? What can we do to end this physical isolation?

To this end, technology companies have put on their “kind capitalism” hats and launched into fix-it mode. Some are producing – and profiting handsomely from – masks and ventilators, while others 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.

Related: The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level | Evgeny Morozov

Globally, governments and their private sector partners have already turned to physical- and bio-surveillance to contain the pandemic. The Russian government is reportedly using facial surveillance technology to “catch” those who may have violated quarantine orders. Various European countries have embraced the use of tech tools including AI-powered “lie-detector tests” and drones for “migration management” and “population control”; alarmed human rights specialists worry about a discriminatory impact on already vulnerable refugees.

In the US, 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.

By re-packaging their surveillance systems as public health services, technology companies and state authorities are softening opposition to surveillance capitalism, even re-purposing it as a social good, and undermining existing critique. A Customs and Border Protection commissioner, for example, recently re-framed the much criticized use of face surveillance at the border as a “hygienic” technology that can protect travelers from Covid-19.

We can use this moment to contain the virus while critically interrogating the totalitarian possibilities embedded in unbridled data collection

The false dichotomy between health and privacy also masks the critical role that contact tracing and other forms of surveillance and data collection have already played in exacerbating the very real disparate impacts of this pandemic on particular minority communities. In the pre-pandemic world, the personal data that enables contact tracing was used by banks and credit score agencies to help tag, measure and rank us. This scoring in turn classified us, entrenching existing socio-economic inequalities by controlling access to housing, loans and even health insurance.

So, while surveillance has some potential to mitigate the pandemic, it also has the very real potential to produce anti-democratic, discriminatory practices and structures at a broad, global scale. Once a technology is built and data gathered, it can be used for many purposes beyond that for which it was originally intended. NSO Group, a corporate spyware firm infamous for enabling the surveillance of journalists and activists, is reportedly re-purposing its technology to contract trace. How will the data they collect be stored? When will it be discarded? How else might it be used?

There are two paths before us. 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.

Even in a pandemic – perhaps especially in a pandemic – data collection, classification, management and use are inherently political. No matter how much we long to return to “normal,” we must be weary of becoming further imprisoned by the for-profit use of our data. In both controlling the pandemic and rebuilding our worlds, we must remember not to trade our physical isolation for the cages of surveillance capitalism.

  • Veena Dubal is an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings