Mass Surveillance and COVID-19 -- Dystopian Jitters, I


           I’ve got a serious case of the dystopian jitters, and I can’t tell whether the source of them is realistic or not. So, I share them with you, the better to reality test in these days of isolated anxiety.

            What are dystopian jitters?

            A fear of what the future may bring.

            As a species, we have the wonderful gift of imagination. We don’t merely detect and respond to the data our senses bring to mind; we can add or subtract ideas, and create imaginative worlds of our own based on our selections. Thus science fiction, looking to the future through the lens of a variable we choose to select and emphasize.

            Images of utopia, a word literally meaning “no place,” are generally happy forecasts. Imagine a world in which there were no illness, or no food shortages.

            Dystopias, generally, are places where things go wrong. We select a feature of the present, and extrapolate it into the future, creating a world uncomfortable to imagine inhabiting.

            Dystopian jitters, then, are a fear of the future based on the assumption that certain features of the world in which we now live will become more and more significant, with horrifying consequences.

            What form do these jitters take today? A fear of mass surveillance.

            Both Apple, Inc. and Google announced this week that they will jointly develop software that will alert folks if they have been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. And how will that work? Our phones will translate data acquired via our IPhones and Androids about our movements. Our movements will plotted against one another. Get too close to someone with an active trace of COVID-19, and you get an alert.

            United Stated Senator Bill Cassidy, R-LA, was on the morning talk shows today telling us what a good idea this is. Why, it will help get us back on our feet and back to work. By being able to pinpoint the source of contagious vectors quickly, we can manage risk.

            What about privacy, Senator?

            Oh, no need to worry. The program is voluntary and protected by HIPPA, a federal law that keeps confidential health data given to health-care providers. A cellphone user can decide to opt out of the reporting requirement.

            Seriously, Senator? That’s all you’ve got?

            The data is useless unless shared. And its value is diminished significantly to the extent that it is not the result of universal monitoring.

            HIPPA makes it a federal crime for health-care providers to share information they collect about a patient unless that disclosure is authorized by law. Thus, I can’t get a sneak peak at your medical records. But if the Apple/Google panoptican is to have any value, the data must be shared. The data will go the government, or to an authorized third-party, to generate alerts. It’s a simple step from that to sharing the data with law-enforcement officers working in a new public health role to determine the whereabouts of the presumptively infected, the better to round them up and whisk them off the street.

            And what about the claim that folks can opt out?

            Isn’t the sort of person who would decide not to participate in a public-health measure the very sort of person you’d most want to watch? Think of those errant souls in the current pandemic who’ve been arrested for intentionally coughing at others, or otherwise spawning fear in others by purporting to spread the virus.

            I doubt seriously whether anyone will be able to turn off the monitoring device. Recall the reports the Alexa listens even when not summoned.

            And what of those who decide, on principle, that they’d rather not carry an Apple or Google device if the cost is surveillance? These opt-outs defeat the goal of public-health surveillance.

              The best defense against spreading the virus is universal monitoring. Don’t want a device? Tough. You can’t go out without one, the law might read. (Not a bad business model for Apple and Google – “A device in every pocket for a health and safe America,” the monopoly ad might read.)

            And how might the universal use requirement be enforced?

            No vendor of goods or services will be permitted to transact business with a customer unless the customer presents his phone. This would also be a tidy way of assuring tax compliance. Register every transaction and you have a pretty good idea of what the user has in terms of income; it would also make the sales tax easy to enforce. Why link a vendor’s bank account to the taxing authority, and the tax could be withdrawn before the vendor took his cut. It’s simple, and safe!

            All this and we’re just getting started.

            The time is ripe to lay the foundation for digital surveillance. We’re scared, and seemingly willing to sacrifice privacy, even liberty, for safety. Big tech is striking while the iron is hot, and we are readily bending to submit our neck to the anvil.

            But this is just the start. Consider social scoring, which we’ll discuss in the next entry on Dystopian Jitters.

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