While digging through my photo archives recently, I came across this image that I made some years ago in Brussels. It got me thinking about mass surveillance – not just by cameras on streets, but in more insidious ways.
Amidst the coronavirus crisis, governments around the world are releasing phone apps to trace Covid-19 cases, including in partnership with book tech companies like Apple and Google. While the initial, underlying motives for introducing these tools are to protect our health, societies our economies, there is a risk that such apps could further erode our privacy, bolster state control over our lives, and provide more opportunities for corporations to monetise our daily lives. I’m not suggesting we freak out, but proper safeguards must be put in place – lest we end up with “social credit” systems like in China.
In my own country, Ireland, I see reports that 84% of people are open to installing a contact-tracing app (Silicon Republic) and that “one in four must use app to curb Covid-19” (Irish Times). So people are open to using the apps but at what cost? In South Korea – the most digitally connected country in the world – mobile phone data was mined to “flatten the curve” – but due to privacy concerns, people simply received messages saying something like “you were in this place at this time, and a male/female of age X who had Covid-19 was there at the same time” (read it in The Guardian). This is fine, it itself – the identity of individuals is being protected. But in order to get this data, someone had to mine and collate the data, with identities intact – and this data is sitting somewhere, potentially open to abuse or theft .
I’ve included some articles that are worth googling. And if you don’t want to chance Shoshana Zuboff mammoth text on “surveillance capitalism”, her Guardian interview from last year is excellent, and worth reading.