I am a privacy activist who has been riding a variety of high horses about the dangers of permanent, ubiquitous data collection since 2012.
But warning people about these dangers today is like being concerned about black mold growing in the basement when the house is on fire. Yes, in the long run the elevated humidity poses a structural risk that may make the house uninhabitable, or at least a place no one wants to live. But right now, the house is on fire. We need to pour water on it.
In our case, the fire is the global pandemic and the severe economic crisis it has precipitated. Once the initial shock wears off, we can expect this to be followed by a political crisis, in which our society will fracture along pre-existing lines of contention.
But for the moment, we are united by fear and have some latitude to act.
Doctors tell us that if we do nothing, the coronavirus will infect a large fraction of humanity over the next few months. As it spreads, the small proportion of severe cases will overwhelm the medical system, a process we are seeing play out right now in places like Lombardy and New York City. It is imperative that we slow this process down (the famous 'flattening the curve') so that the peak of infections never exceeds our capacity to treat the severely ill. In the short term this can only be done by shutting down large sections of the economy, an unprecedented move.
But once the initial outbreak is contained, we will face a dilemma. Do we hurt people by allowing the economy to collapse entirely, or do we hurt people by letting the virus spread again? How do we reconcile the two?
One way out of the dilemma would be some kind of medical advance—a vaccine, or an effective antiviral treatment that lowered the burden on hospitals. But it is not clear how long the research programs searching for these breakthroughs will take, or whether they will succeed at all.
Without these medical advances, we know the virus will resume its spread as soon as the harsh controls are lifted.
Doctors and epidemiologists caution us that the only way to go back to some semblance of normality after the initial outbreak has been brought under control will be to move from population-wide measures (like closing schools and making everyone stay home) to an aggressive case-by-case approach that involves a combination of extensive testing, rapid response, and containing clusters of infection as soon as they are found, before they have a chance to spread.
That kind of case tracking has traditionally been very labor intensive. But we could automate large parts of it with the technical infrastructure of the surveillance economy. It would not take a great deal to turn the ubiquitous tracking tools that follow us around online into a sophisticated public health alert system.
Every one of us now carries a mobile tracking device that leaves a permanent trail of location data. This data is individually identifiable, precise to within a few meters, and is harvested by a remarkable variety of devices and corporations, including the large tech companies, internet service providers, handset manufacturers, mobile companies, retail stores, and in one infamous case, public trash cans on a London street.
Anyone who has this data can retroactively reconstruct the movements of a person of interest, and track who they have been in proximity to over the past several days. Such a data set, combined with aggressive testing, offers the potential to trace entire chains of transmission in real time, and give early warning to those at highest risk.
This surveillance sounds like dystopian fantasy, but it exists today, ready for use. All of the necessary data is being collected and stored already. The only thing missing is a collective effort to pool it and make it available to public health authorities, along with a mechanism to bypass the few Federal privacy laws that prevent the government from looking at the kind of data the private sector can collect without restraint.
We've already seen such an ad-hoc redeployment of surveillance networks in Israel, where an existing domestic intelligence network was used to notify people that they had possibly been infected, and should self-quarantine, a message that was delivered by text message with no prior warning that such a system even existed.
We could make similar quick changes to the surveillance infrastructure in the United States (hopefully with a little more public awareness that such a system was coming online). When people are found to be sick, their location and contact history could then be walked back to create a list of those they were in touch with during the period of infectiousness. Those people would then be notified of the need to self-quarantine (or hunted with blowguns and tranquilizer darts, sent to FEMA labor camps, or whatever the effective intervention turns out to be.)
This tracking infrastructure could also be used to enforced self-quarantine, using the same location-aware devices. The possibilities of such a system are many, even before you start writing custom apps for it, and there would be no shortage of tech volunteers to make it a reality.
The aggregate data set this surveillance project would generate would have enormous value in its own right. It would give public health authorities a way to identify hot spots, run experiments, and find interventions that offered the maximum benefit at the lowest social cost. They could use real-time data and projections to allocate scarce resources to hospitals, and give advance warnings of larger outbreaks to state and Federal authorities in time to inform policy decisions.
Of course, all of this would come at an enormous cost to our privacy. This is usually the point in an essay where I’d break out the old Ben Franklin quote: “those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”
But this proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn't already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?
The most troubling change this project entails is giving access to sensitive location data across the entire population to a government agency. Of course that is scary, especially given the track record of the Trump administration. The data collection would also need to be coercive (that is, no one should be able to opt out of it, short of refusing to carry a cell phone). As with any government surveillance program, there would be the danger of a ratchet effect, where what is intended as an emergency measure becomes the permanent state of affairs, like happened in the United States in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
But the public health potential of commandeering surveillance advertising is so great that we can’t dismiss it out of hand. I am a privacy activist, typing this through gritted teeth, but I am also a human being like you, watching a global calamity unfold around us. What is the point of building this surveillance architecture if we can't use it to save lives in a scary emergency like this one?
One existing effort we could look to as a model for navigating this situation is the public/private partnership we have set up to monitor child sexual abuse material (CSAM) on the Internet.
Large image sharing sites like Facebook, Google, and Snapchat use a technology called PhotoDNA to fingerprint and identify images of known abuse material. They do this voluntarily, but if they find something, they are required by law to report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a nongovernmental entity that makes referrals as appropriate to the FBI.
The system is not perfect, and right now is being used as a political football in a Trump administration attempt to curtail end-to-end encryption. But it shows the kind of public-private partnership you can duct tape together when the stakes are high and every party involved feels the moral imperative to act.
In this spirit, I believe the major players in the online tracking space should team up with the CDC, FEMA, or some other Federal agency that has a narrow remit around public health, and build a national tracking database that will operate for some fixed amount of time, with the sole purpose of containing the coronavirus epidemic. It will be necessary to pass legislation to loosen medical privacy laws and indemnify participating companies from privacy lawsuits, as well as override California's privacy law, to collect this data I don’t believe the legal obstacles are insuperable, but I welcome correction on this point by people who know the relevant law.
This enabling legislation, however, should come at a price. We have an opportunity to lay a foundation for the world we want to live in after the crisis is over. One reason we tolerate the fire department knocking down our door when there is an emergency is that we have strong protections against such intrusions, whether by government agencies or private persons, in more normal times. Those protections don't exist right now for online privacy. One reason this proposal is so easy to float is that private companies have enjoyed an outrageous freedom to track every aspect of our lives, keeping the data in perpetuity, and have made full use of it, turning the online economy into an extractive industry. That has to end.
Including privacy guarantees in the enabling legislation for public health surveillance will also help ensure that emergency measures don't become the new normal. If we use this capability deftly, we could come out of this crisis with a relatively intact economy, a low cumulative death toll, and a much healthier online sphere.
Of course, the worst people are in power right now, and the chances of them putting such a program through in any acceptable form are low. But it’s 2020. Weirder things have happened. The alternative is to keep this surveillance infrastructure in place to sell soap and political ads, but refuse to bring it to bear in a situation where it can save millions of lives. That would be a shameful, disgraceful legacy indeed.
I continue to believe that living in a surveillance society is incompatible in the long term with liberty. But a prerequisite of liberty is physical safety. If temporarily conscripting surveillance capitalism as a public health measure offers us a way out of this crisis, then we should take it, and make full use of it. At the same time, we should reflect on why such a powerful surveillance tool was instantly at hand in this crisis, and what its continuing existence means for our long-term future as a free people.