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Surveillance and the COVID-19 Kakistocracy

by on May 1, 2020

easyDNS is pleased to sponsor Jesse Hirsh‘s “Future Fibre / Future Tools” segments of his new email list, Metaviews.

How can democracy intervene in this crisis?

The last few issues we’ve been exploring themes inspired by, or focused on, democracy, institutions, and social change, all in the context of a high stress situation where anxiety is in great abundance.

Democracy is relevant and worthy of our attention as we’re collectively experiencing significant policy shifts and decisions that will profoundly impact our immediate and long term future. Substantive change is underway, and even greater transformations are being proposed. Now is the time to revisit our (democratic) values and renew our desire for democratic institutions.

Yet doing so is difficult when we’re struggling with stress and overcome with anxiety. However that’s exactly why democracy should be our focus. It offers the antidote to our stress, and the collective release for our anxiety. In contrast, the problem with the status quo, the problem with our current status in this crisis, is that we’re stuck in a paradox, quite like Shrodinger’s cat:

The relatively rapid fall of the Soviet Union unleashed a powerfully corrupt kleptocracy that provides a frame for how contemporary states fail. A kleptocracy being a regime run by thieves, with their primary focus being the looting of public resources for private gain.

Previous to our current crisis I was of the mind that kleptocracy had become the dominant ideology (as a political manifestation of narcissism, the dominant culture). Different states had varying degrees of kleptocratic policies and actions, with the most blatant belonging to the current White House administration.

For example, the presence and over sized role of the President’s son-in-law is a clear sign that looting and tipping the scales are taking place. There have been a bunch of investigations into the Kushner family, and the extent to which they are among the primary beneficiaries of this regime. Although said son-in-law may now be referred to as the de-facto POTUS:

Maybe kleptocracy is not the right phrase to use in this context, as it does not also address the incompetence that is equally pervasive.

Rather what about the concept of a kakistocracy? Defined by Wikipedia as “a system of government that is run by the worst, least qualified, and/or most unscrupulous citizens.”

The concept is not new, but it’s use seems to be returning (relatively rapidly). It certainly embodies a lot of my frustration, not just with the White House, but with institutional leadership in general. I found the phrase via this interview with Chris Hedges:

A future and recurring theme of this newsletter will be focused on rebuilding and reviving our commons, as a concept and as infrastructure. It is partly why our Future Tools and Future Fibre series exist, but it also represents one of the larger challenges we face in rebuilding our society and economy.

However in this issue, the purpose of evoking a kakistocracy is to situate the concept in the rush to embrace technology as the solution to this crisis. This is why kleptocracy is insufficient, as this is not just about looting or profiteering. Rather it is also about incompetence and foolish policy that will not achieve its aims, but rather undermine our collective efforts to emerge from this crisis.

Of course it’s not too late, and the promise of democracy is that we can always change course, we can always find a better way, this case, a human way.

Andy Slavitt, the former director of Medicare and Medicaid in the Obama administration, wrote on Twitter that early in the pandemic he worked to see if Google and Apple would collaborate on smartphone tracking. “I was looking for silver bullets,” he tweeted. “But I was lying to myself.”

Slavitt changed his focus. He teamed up with Scott Gottlieb, a former head of the Food and Drug Administration under President Trump, to help write a pandemic-fighting proposal that emphasizes low-tech solutions.

They said the United States needed comprehensive, coordinated coronavirus testing, and tens of billions of dollars in government spending to isolate and compensate infected people to limit spread among family members. They said a couple hundred thousand people may be needed to do the laborious work to identify infected people.

It is encouraging to see there is a modest amount of push back against the magic app idea that falsely argues that surveillance will save us.

What is also interesting and relevant is who this push back is coming from. The following essay was written by credible and widely respected researchers in diverse fields.

We are concerned by this rising enthusiasm for automated technology as a centerpiece of infection control. Between us, we hold extensive expertise in technology, law and policy, and epidemiology. We have serious doubts that voluntary, anonymous contact tracing through smartphone apps—as Apple, Google, and faculty at a number of academic institutions all propose—can free Americans of the terrible choice between staying home or risking exposure. We worry that contact-tracing apps will serve as vehicles for abuse and disinformation, while providing a false sense of security to justify reopening local and national economies well before it is safe to do so. Our recommendations are aimed at reducing the harm of a technological intervention that seems increasingly inevitable.

We have no doubts that the developers of contact-tracing apps and related technologies are well-intentioned. But we urge the developers of these systems to step up and acknowledge the limitations of those technologies before they are widely adopted. Health agencies and policymakers should not over-rely on these apps and, regardless, should make clear rules to head off the threat to privacy, equity, and liberty by imposing appropriate safeguards.

This is a classic trope in the technology world. Boast about what your technology can do, without providing evidence it can deliver.

The lure of automating the painstaking process of contact tracing is apparent. But to date, no one has demonstrated that it’s possible to do so reliably despite numerous concurrent attempts. Apps that notify participants of disclosure could, on the margins and in the right conditions, help direct testing resources to those at higher risk. Anything else strikes us as implausible at best, and dangerous at worst.

And just to be clear about what they see as potentially dangerous:

And finally, the issue of malicious use is paramount—particularly given this current climate of disinformation, astroturfing, and political manipulation. Imagine an unscrupulous political operative who wanted to dampen voting participation in a given district, or a desperate business owner who wanted to stifle competition. Either could falsely report incidences of coronavirus without much fear of repercussion. Trolls could sow chaos for the malicious pleasure of it. Protesters could trigger panic as a form of civil disobedience. A foreign intelligence operation could shut down an entire city by falsely reporting COVID-19 infections in every neighborhood. There are a great many vulnerabilities underlying this platform that have still yet to be explored.

All of which seem to be valid concerns that reflect the need not to rush forward with such surveillance and tracing tools.

Similarly a lot of the argument in favour of such tools, rests on the false premise that they have been successful elsewhere. Taiwan for example is cited as a successful instance, and yet that may not be the case:

Again, this is why it is essential not to rush into significant policy decisions without considering the impacts and arguments in favour. We’re in a peak period of disinformation, combined with a conspiracy renaissance, more reason to be careful with our arguments and even more so with our policy decisions.

In this case it is relatively easy to anticipate the scope creep, and the way in which such surveillance may be used for other purposes.

Another valid concern is that these policies will usher in a new era of data colonialism:

Data colonialism is the startling new social order based on continuous tracking of our devices and online lives that has created unprecedented opportunities for social discrimination and behavioural influence by corporations. It goes well beyond the social media platforms and search engines that have attracted most criticism, and comprises a complete reorganisation of everyday life and business.

True, data colonialism may not have all the features for which historic colonialism is now most remembered (extreme physical violence, for instance). But if we think about the core function of colonialism in world history – to exploit the world’s resources on a completely new scale, redefining human relations to economic production in the process – the parallel is clear.

Although as the article above notes, this is not created by our current crisis, however it is being normalized as a result of it. Pre-pandemic we were in the process of coming to terms with the digital monopolies that dominate our society. Yet in the midst of this pandemic we would be wise to not only remember how we got here, but rekindle our need to do something about it.

In particular, this article argues we should not focus on policy, or regulatory action, but rather decentralized grassroots efforts:

If history of privacy teaches us anything — privacy evolved as the citizen effort against invasion by the government — it basically extended Habeas Corpus protections for the private sphere of an individual. If privacy is to survive as a virtue, we the people need to be empowered against the public and private intruders, be it governments or internet corporations.

Unfortunately, the majority of privacy scholarship is more concerned with drafting or commenting on the regulations, rather than reconceptualizing the grassroots privacy. Real privacy tools are more on offer from the tech community, than from the privacy and data protection establishment.

Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to mobilize the grassroots privacy effort, to reinvent privacy for Covid-19 cases and other emergencies, if we don’t do that — tyrannies will do as they did in the past and all for the ‘greater good.’

This is a valid argument, that we neither have the luxury to wait, nor should we place faith or trust into the institutions that have failed us.

Even if contact tracing surveillance is limited or restricted, there will be other surveillance tools that follow in its wake, potentially as ineffective and intrusive.

We should also not focus our attention exclusively on surveillance to fight the pandemic, but also the surveillance being expanded that adapts to our new work, living, and learning arrangements:

Equally hilarious and tragic is the potential lengths they could go to monitor us in our new workplaces.

It all begs the question, what level of surveillance would you accept? Either to keep your job or to see society restart? Is there a balance we should be aiming for?

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One of the problems that we’ll discuss in the days to come, is the authoritarian tendency to silence people who are expressing ideas outside of the current, narrow, yet undefined, pandemic orthodoxy. This is partly done out of a concern to minimize the damage done by disinformation, however it is also being done to reinforce the perceived authority of experts.

The problem with such an approach is that it not only undermines these experts, but the democratic process as whole.

We need to recognize that democracy is based on diversity and dissent. That getting the public on side means engaging them. It also means that we can change our minds. Hopefully when it comes to surveillance, it’s not too late.

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