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Covid-19, data tracking and our right to privacy: Where are the limits?

Jonathan Ebsworth of the TechHuman initiative warns that some technologies being used in Europe are “approaching a level of quasi-omniscience that no human enterprise ought to have”.

AUTOR 7/Joel_Forster,5/Evangelical_Focus LONDON 06 DE ABRIL DE 2020 17:07 h
Photo: John Tuesday (Unsplash, CC0)

Governments around Europe are facing the Covid-19 crisis with every tool available, and this includes telecommunications and Artificial Intelligence technology.

Countries in Asia such as China and South Korea have tracked the movements of citizens to fight the epidemic, implementing strategies that have led to a strict control of the population.

In their fight against the coronavirus, European governments have also announced that they will start to use mobile phone technology to gather information about the movements of its citizens.

But where should we draw a line and ask for our rights to be respected? What are the consequences for our privacy of some of the technologies used by Big Tech companies?

Jonathan Ebsworth responds to these questions in the interview below. He is one of the founders of TechHuman initiative, a newly created platform of resources on “technology, humanity and faith” which aims to “explore the impact of the Digital Revolution on human life”.


Jonathan Ebsworth.

Question. How could this Covid-19 crisis be wrongly by governments or private companies to implement technological control over the population?

Answer. The press is quite full of speculations – probably well-informed - that Big Tech (particularly Facebook and Google), the mobile Telcos and some Transport-related businesses are exploring the use of ‘Big Data’ techniques first to monitor but then offering the potential to assist in the control of populations during this extraordinary lockdown.

We can look at headlines like Coronavirus: “UK considers virus-tracing app to ease lockdown” to see the direction of travel. Even with a bare minimum of information captured from the application itself, the associated location data, tracking etc. can paint a very precise picture of who we are, what we are doing, who we are associating with and so on.

If we rewind just over a year to the launch of Shoshana Zuboff’s “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” (read a review of this tome here) to hear one of the best researched, most carefully argued accusations of Big Tech. It accused them of not just of spying on us (the so-called customers or consumers of their services) but of systematically seeking to manipulate human behaviour. In this book Zubhoff describes a repeating pattern she has observed, where companies like Google and Facebook seek to push their intrusive activities ever further into the private spaces of our lives. It goes something like this: 

Stage 1: Incursion. Deliberate, uninvited intrusion into a hitherto ‘private space’ to gather our data.

Stage 2: Habituation. Sustained occupation of that ‘private space’ by the intruder for as long possible.

Stage 3: Adaptation. Public announcement in the face of outrage offering modified practice. 

Stage 4: Redirection. Diversion of public focus, while reverting to largely unmodified behaviour.

The cynical offer of help from Google and Facebook, sits firmly within this pattern (Adaptation and Redirection) – admitting to levels of insight that have not been made publically before, and waving the red rag of Covid-19 both to justify and distract from these dubious behaviours.

I do not believe we ever consciously gave our informed consent to the level of tracking that these two companies in particular indulge in. Of course, if they possess insight that is of value in the fight against this Pandemic, it must be shared. Failure to do so would be morally and ethically reprehensible, but I wonder whether that really is the motivation for these offers.

Q. Could the crisis become an “accelerator” for governmental initiatives in the area of technology that were planned for the future, but being tested now?

A. Governments, who are well aware of the power of these organisations (despite their struggles to know what to do about them) – are undoubtedly delighted to seize on the opportunity to gain greater insight, than many of their creaking processes and systems have been able to generate so far.

I hope that governments are motivated entirely by ambition to control and overcome the spread of Coronavirus through populations. I do worry that governments may accidentally or deliberately join the disingenuous ‘Incursion – Habituation – Adaptation – Redirection’ cycle that Zuboff describes. There is little doubt that these extraordinary times do indeed justify extraordinary measures to try to minimise the impact of this disease.


Photo: Markus Spiske (Unsplash, CC0)

Q. For us as citizens, what should be the balance between a) being aware of the potential dangers of new uses of technologies - and b) having a positive and constructive engagement with these realities from a Christian perspective?

A. I think the public has (for the most part) demonstrated willingness to support whatever steps are required to win this battle. The recent survey covered in Der Spiegel in Germany is reasonably reflective of general attitudes here. 

Society as a whole is complacent about the longer term threats to privacy of the sustained behaviour of Big Tech (which is more than just Google and Facebook. Particularly with the combined threats of very widely deployed smartphones, riddled with apps that track (in various different ways) our location and behaviour, including listening to our private conversations.

If we add to that, the increasingly common ‘smart’ speakers – like Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple Home Pod - along with all those other speakers and mobile devices that carry Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant, augmented by the growing number of ‘smart home devices’ particularly those from Amazon (Ring) and Google (Nest… Then there are few corners of modern life that are resistant to digital incursion.

Big tech is approaching a level of quasi-omniscience that no human enterprise ought to have; particularly those that are not subject to generally accepted checks and balances. While legal frameworks like GDPR provide a step in the right direction – it is clear, that it is nowhere near fit for purpose in terms of ‘informed consent’ of levels of surveillance.

Big Tech moves at digital speed – ‘moving fast and breaking things’. Legislation moves far, far more slowly and judicial process are slower still. Our political systems are not currently fit to fight for citizens to defend their privacy, even if that was something governments wanted to do.

At a societal level, there is a tendency to fuel complacency with the slightly sanctimonious, ‘I haven’t got anything to hide’. Yet, I am not sure that most of us appreciate that every pretty much search term we have entered, every web page we have visited, all our social media posts, most of our online purchases, much of our spending, all of our physical movements and even our conversations are ‘visible’ to one or more of the technology providers. And they are not shy about using that information to make money – and in some cases to manipulate our behaviour.

The Church doesn’t seem any wiser than society as a whole. Facebook in particular has seen the value of religious groups within their world of connections – and are encouraging religious groups online. Exposing more and more people to their intrusive and secretive data gathering. Their tools undoubtedly offer a brilliantly simple way to connect people online.

Is there anywhere left in the connected world that we can go to be free from this surveillance? Do we have to go completely ‘off the grid’ – eschewing all forms of modern technology to find true Sanctuary, where we can be alone, disconnected, unmonitored and able to meditate and listen to the voice of God? Increasingly, that seems to be the case – but I don’t think it needs to be so, if we as the Church and Society wake up to the potential threats of an intrusive, unaccountable privately operated surveillance existence.

Technology has brought great blessing through the Coronavirus crisis – communities have been able to connect through Facetime, Zoom, Houseparty, Facebook, Instagram Live, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and so on. Church services – which are getting increasingly creative – have moved online in days, and are reaching more people than ever before. Our local church morning prayer meeting, which happens daily, is attracting over 60 people every day. Christians locked down, are reaching out to their Church communities more perhaps than ever before.

Technology is being used to try to reach the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the hungry and the weak at these difficult times. The fact that technology has reached this level of maturity and strength, along with the underlying infrastructure, has enabled a completely different kind of lock-down than would have been possible only a few years ago.

But even in these great blessings there are two cautions I would highlight.

The first is that the most disadvantaged in our society will often be ‘digitally excluded’ – with no smartphone, no mobile data, no access to Wi-Fi. We need to find creative ways to reach and support these, the most vulnerable – as their isolation is at a completely different level than those of us who can enjoy the blessing of on-demand video conferencing, text messages or even voice calls.

The second is that we humans were created for relationship (Gen 2:18); real relationships. Digital connection – particularly the current broadband version of it is wonderful. It is however a pale shadow of fully embodied connection of two (or more) human beings physically in each other’s presence. When this crisis is over, we must not settle for this as the norm of human relationship. We have to recommit to the real thing – analogue, messy, unedited, human to human interactions.

In the same way, if governments do indeed take advantage of the opportunities to monitor populations in the same intrusive ways we permit Big Tech to do today, we must hold Governments accountable for relinquishing those powers when this is over. Perhaps we should also look to find ways to challenge the Big Tech companies to do the same.




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