Big Tech, Big Brother, and the Virus: The Cautionary Tale

This is part one of a two-part series.

Big tech can provide surveillance, we know that by now. It can provide the surveillance at as fine a level as you want — at our individual level and at minute-level precision. The cell phone and the credit card, the two indispensable parts of our daily lives, act as super-efficient and effective digital ankle bracelets for all of us. Now can these be turned around for useful tracking of the spread of the rage of the day, or of the month, the Corona Virus? I will just refer to it as the CV because that makes it sound a little more prosaic and thus less fearsome.

Big Tech for Contact Tracing

The hip new term is contact tracing, whereby your government can trace where all you have been and who all you have been in contact with. Some rather extreme forms of contact tracing are where new arrivals from abroad are required to wear electronic bracelets to track their movements (Hong Kong), those self-isolating are contacted several times a day, and required to send photographic proof of their whereabouts (Singapore), and facial recognition technology identifying people on the city’s subway not wearing masks (Beijing). How about some of our hotshot Computer Science research being put to use — aerial drones equipped with fever detecting goggles looking down on the hoi polloi? Well, that is already reality. Perhaps several tens of papers to reduce the energy consumption of such drones [ Paper-1 ] [ Paper-2 ] [ Paper-3 (from our lab) ] will be of use here because they are running out of juice after only about 20 minutes.

Can all this surveillance be put to good use to prevent the spread of a health pandemic? I am not convinced based on looking at the existing data. Of course, the data is nascent and we have to look back once this CV is in our rear-view mirror to get a real picture. But here is the preliminary evidence.

For one, big brother surveillance creates a lack of trust in the people and trust in institutions is sorely needed in times of crisis like this. Second, the massive level of surveillance that needs to be rolled out and made easily accessible to a wide range of authorities (that means, not just the security agencies but also state and local government and healthcare agencies) is just not feasible in modern democracies. Third, there is the opportunity cost. The effort put into such surveillance can be better spent elsewhere, such as, in keeping the public well-informed and the grocery shelves well-stocked.

Finally, even if this can be done, should it be done? I believe making such big tech widely available in the hands of non-experts runs the risk of harming the people. For example, a person being “outed” as being infected may be ostracized or worse, come to harm due to mob violence. And this is particularly troublesome because in many parts of the world, the vulnerable many such as healthcare workers are forced to work without basic protections against the CV.

Credit: Kaamran Hafeez, New Yorker Cartoons, March 17, 2014.

The Velvet Touch

Consider on the other hand, how voluntary use of big tech in the hands of the people has led to desirable outcomes, slowing the spread of the CV. In S. Korea for example, a mobile app can tell you if you are going to enter an area where infections have been detected. At Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, students are encouraged to scan QR codes pasted on the front doors and interiors of classrooms when they enter a class.

Here in the US, telcos had been caught selling location data to third-party companies, which came to light after a security breach at one of these location aggregator companies in May 2018. The company LocationSmart at the time claimed to have access to data from the four major US carriers, as well as US Cellular, and the Canadian carriers Bell, Rogers, and Telus. After this outing, the telcos made some cautious statements about backing away from sharing such location data. Thankfully, we are not seeing any evidence of such kind of aggregate location data being used to track people for spread of CV here in the US.

In the next part, I will reflect on some reasons to toast big tech, and small tech, in its role to counter the ills of the CV.

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