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Covid-19 and the cult of privacy

Daniel Miller30 April 2020

Recently a friend of mine caught Covid-19. He worked for the NHS. As it happens, the particular job he was carrying out could just as well have been done from home, but the NHS insisted he did it from the hospital because of GDPR regulations on data protection. In my book The Comfort of People, I argued that the single biggest cause of harm to hospice patients, other than their illness, was the insistence on confidentiality, as a result of which different members of their care teams failed to keep each other informed. When we give talks about how we hope to use our research to improve people’s welfare, the most common question asked is not how it might benefit the welfare of that population, but whether our proposals might intrude on privacy. What the hell is going on? When faced with what might seem initially to be inexplicable behaviour, anthropologists tend to use two procedures. Look for the underlying ideology and make sure that the discussion includes cultural relativism.

A common curse word in academia today is neo-liberalism, often used as a synonym for capitalism. Yet if the term is taken literally, it might have been more appropriate as a description of this cult of privacy. Liberalism was the movement that focused upon the individual who was ascribed inalienable rights as an individual. This ‘neo’ liberalism is founded in a core belief that individuals have an almost intrinsic human right to control all information about themselves. It is entirely different from the socialist ideologies that I was brought up with. These would have implied that if the state can enhance social welfare by collecting information about individuals, this automatically supersedes individual rights. The US and Europe are perhaps the staunchest proponents of rampant privacy. But they take different very forms. In Europe, it is promoted through bureaucratic regulation. The problem is that GDPR seems (to me) a justifiable weapon against the commercial exploitation of people as data, but it then gets extended so comprehensively that voluntary groups may struggle to operate and ethnography itself is threatened, due to difficulties with compliance. The EU failed to separate out its benign use from its malign use. By contrast, the way privacy rights have developed in the US seems more in keeping with the neo-liberalism of the political economy, an ideology associated with the freedoms of individuals and choice that are also used to legitimate contemporary capitalism. These rights are then pitched against the state ‘snooping,’ rather than becoming an instrument of state bureaucracy.

This extension of privacy into a foundational belief system has become hugely important today because of Covid-19. More particularly, it has become central to any debate about the potential role of smartphones in response to Covid-19. Last Sunday, the Australian government launched their covidsafe app. The UK has plans for an NHS app. These will allow a person’s smartphone to provide information on every other person they have been in contact with, which can then form the basis of contact tracing. The information will only be actually collected with permission and when that person has contracted the virus. Contract tracing based on apps in combination with interviews appears to be the key to the successful elimination of the virus.

We cannot be for or against privacy. It must be a question of the balance between care and surveillance, which was the subject of my last blog post. We can share Morozov’s horror of letting corporations, such as the combination of Apple and Google, trying to take control of these initiatives, while at the same time encouraging people to participate when apps are being launched by states that seem genuinely concerned with finding an alternative to lockdown.

At present so much of this is top-down technological solutionism. But my last blog post argued that ordinary people are constantly having to make their own decisions about the balance between surveillance and care as part of everyday life, when parenting their children or looking after frail parents. Our research provides evidence that ordinary people are therefore well-qualified to have a say in this political debate. Our evidence also suggests that to succeed, the adoption of these apps needs to come from bottom-up forms of dissemination, not top-down.

One result of respecting the views of ordinary people would be to recognise cultural relativism. It will not just be states, but also populations, that take different views on where the balance between care and surveillance lies. Presently, South Korea looks very different from Sweden, but both may be relatively consensual compared to more autocratic regimes. So we need to stop thinking that one approach is right, and one is wrong for those regions, and decide what is the least bad option for ourselves. Relativism will also apply to the passage of time. What is justified now may not be acceptable when a vaccine is available.  This is the time to insist that populations are allowed, through consulting, to have a say in creating the appropriate balance between care and surveillance that we are then going to be subject to.