COVID-19: the possible misuses of surveillance of personal data
Professor of criminology, University of Montreal
If we are not careful, the right to privacy may be one of the many collateral victims of the pandemic COVID-19.
In order to regain its freedom of movement is temporarily suspended, and in order to protect the population against a second wave of infection, one sees put in place the elements of a monitoring infrastructure devoted to public health.
This infrastructure consists of a set of devices for the collection of personal data such as smart phones, video surveillance cameras, the bracelets are connected, robots and drones. Thanks to the innovations made in recent years in the areas of cloud computing, telecommunication networks and of artificial intelligence, the mountains of data generated by these devices may be stored indefinitely. They are analyzed in real time by powerful algorithms of surveillance that can be found in the applications of tracking or face recognition software.
As a criminologist specializing in the study of digital transformations and the adaptation of mechanisms of social control, I have been interested for many years in the new forms of surveillance deployed by the governments and private companies, as well as the forms of resistance that can be opposed.
The temptation of techno-solutionnisme
The technologies that underpin this infrastructure are not new, and their implications that go beyond the sole defense of the right to privacy, as pointed out in these pages, my colleague David Lyon. They know, on the contrary, an accelerated development in the past few years under the pressure of a capitalist system of monitoring that seeks to translate human experience into information that can create a market value for the companies that own it, and know how to exploit it.
In a context of exception, where the pandemic has caused more than 350,000 deaths across the world and while the health systems of the richest countries have undergone many organizational failures, one use of surveillance as a way of managing the health crisis is seductive. In effect, how not to succumb to the sirens of digital tools that promise to automate the detection of suspected cases and to slow down — or even stops — the spread of the virus, which would allow the economy to avoid a widespread collapse ?
The temptation of the ” techno-solutionnisme “, which focuses on technical solutions to meet social problems more complex, however, contains significant risks. The fear collective is generated by the ravages of the virus is-it in fact not trying to plunge us into an era of total surveillance in which it will be impossible for us to get out once the crisis has passed, and of which undermine a sustainable way, our fundamental rights ?
The proliferation of tools for health surveillance
Waiting for a vaccine, an increasing number of countries and companies require a vast array of surveillance technologies aimed at facilitating the tracing of infected people and to ensure respect for rules of social distancing. These applications engage the attention of privacy advocates, but they represent only the tip of the iceberg of the health surveillance.
The asian countries that have initially obtained the best results in the containment of the virus are quickly relied on access to massive data of the cell phone of the entire population : South Korea has put in place a system of data sharing joining together 28 organizations, including the three major telecom operators and 22 credit-card companies, which can trace the movements of infected person and contacts in less than 10 minutes.
The people placed in quarantine in hong Kong must wear an electronic bracelet attached to their smart phone, which ensures that they cannot leave their home and alert the police as soon as any suspicious movement is detected. In Singapore, they have a duty to respond several times a day to text messages that disclose their geographic location.
In China, an application whose use is compulsory in more than 200 cities and designed by a subsidiary of the e-commerce company Alibaba assigns a color code (red, yellow, or green), symbolising the risk of contagion assumed for each user on the basis of data relating to his / her residential address, his habits of life, reported symptoms, etc., The data are shared routinely with the police. The speed of implementation of such a solution technique is a direct result of initiatives of tracing and routine surveillance of citizens, implemented by the chinese government in the framework of its system of social credit.
In mid-may,a fifty tracing applications were available in some thirty countries. However, a quarter of them had not adopted policies of protection of privacy and 60 % of them had not established specific measures of anonymization.
In the most radical way, Israel, for its part, enlisted the supervisory capacities of its internal intelligence, the Shin Bet, in order to identify the persons who have been in contact with infected patients. With the help of location data supplied by mobile operators as part of its device to combat terrorism, the Shin Bet would be located approximately 4,000 people who have then been tested positive, ushering in a hybrid form of monitoring, mixing national security and public health.
A true tech arsenal
Businesses that want to put their employees at work and to accommodate their clients also contribute to this escalation of care-sight.
Start-up specialized in artificial intelligence offer video surveillance systems, integrating sensors into social distancing that can automatically identify all the situations where people intersect at least two metres apart. Others include the temperature sensors to their technology of facial recognition in order to measure continuously and without contact the body temperature of employees when they travel in the premises of the company.
Public transport operators public and private test devices from facial recognition to verify the port of the mask by their users or drivers. Companies manufacturing test watches smart or badges that warn those who wear them each time they violate the rules of social distancing and build risk profiles of the employees.
Drones and robots come to finally complete this arsenal of technology. Many cities Italian, Spanish, French or american, have deployed drones equipped with thermal sensors to fly over the public spaces and identify those febrile or violating the rules of containment, and can even use their speakers to interact with them.
Always at the cutting edge of surveillance technology, Singapore is experimenting with the use of dogs, robots equipped with cameras and speakers to enforce the rules of social distancing in public parks.
Oversee the establishment creeping of an infrastructure of total surveillance
Taken separately, each of these monitoring technologies provides a concrete response to a health threat unprecedented and devastating. Taken together, they outline the contours of a future world where the ubiquity of surveillance caring if insinuera in the recesses of the most secret of our behaviors and our habits.
It is also likely that this care-sight will preserve many forms of discrimination arising from risk profiles whose criteria remain opaque, which will weaken a little more the most vulnerable groups.
Far from constituting a conspiracy implemented by occult forces, the convergence of surveillance technologies, more and more invasive results, rather our never-ending thirst for security and our blind belief in the ability of the technology to control the uncertainty.
But this observation does not constitute a fatality, the outcome of which would tempt us to paralysis and impotence, quite the contrary. Facing the real risk that this infrastructure of surveillance to strengthen its grip well beyond the pandemic, it becomes urgent to discuss and mobilise in order to establish transparent rules and strict as to restrict the risks that it poses to our individual liberties and our social solidarity.
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This text first appeared on thesite of the franco-canadian of The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.