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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.

The COVID-19 crisis in Santiago: the increased vulnerability and isolation of older adults

Alfonso Otaegui23 April 2020

Street market during quarantine in Santiago. CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

As everywhere in the world right now, the main subject ruling everyday life in Santiago, Chile, is the COVID-19 crisis. On the 18th of March, the government declared a national state of catastrophe. Since then, borders have closed, massive gatherings are forbidden, and people are asked to stay at home. The date marks five months since the start of social unrest in Chile, with protests that initially began as a response to a rise in metro fares in Santiago and then escalated into a national crisis. Five months of manifestations and repression followed until the COVID-19 crisis emptied the streets. The government postponed the constitutional referendum from April to October. Despite many accusations of human rights violations directed at the carabineros (Chilean police), their presence in the streets seems to be accepted again.

I still live in the working- and middle-class neighbourhood where I came to do fieldwork on ageing with smartphones over two years ago. While in strict lockdown, I keep in touch with the older adults I taught a smartphone use course to for over a year, mainly through our WhatsApp group. For these older adults, having someone help them with the smartphone is more necessary now than ever before. On the one hand, misinformation about the coronavirus can be significantly harmful. I have been in charge of debunking fake news, which I do several times a week. On the other hand, it has become imperative to be able to do some chores online, such as paying bills. I created a couple of tutorials on how to use banking apps, which have been proven useful for them.

Isolation due to the lockdown and the risk on contagion can exacerbate the feeling of solitude for older adults, especially those living alone. Such is the case of Esther, a retired secretary who is 71. She lives alone and has been estranged from her only son for a long time. She is prone to depression and has a very delicate health condition, which until not so long ago, required the attention of seven different specialists. Esther had closed her bank account since being mugged on the street a few months ago, and has relied solely on cash since then. When the lockdown was announced, she called me sounding very worried, as she did not know what to do and had no one else to turn to. She could not risk going out herself but she needed to pay her bills somehow. Fortunately, on the last day before the lockdown, she was able to open a new bank account that included a home banking service. She only needed to learn how to use her banking app.

Not being able to teach her in person represented a new challenge. The smartphone was our only way of communicating, and her single remaining connection to the Internet (she had to cancel her home Internet service, as she could no longer afford it). I could not talk to her and simultaneously show her banking app screens. I produced two tutorials specially tailored for this occasion. “I will try to do this very slowly, as a way of entertaining myself”, she said. Fortunately, she was able to follow the instructions and succeeded. She was indeed pleased and grateful, and even seemed to be empowered. Esther still struggles with depression. “I try to prevent negative thoughts from growing inside me, and I try to be away from the phone”. Too much information can be overwhelming, she explains. She walks inside her one-bedroom apartment as she tries to stay inside as much as possible. However, other older adults who, like Esther, live alone, will have to go outside at some point.

 

Street market during quarantine in Santiago. CC BY-NC Alfonso Otaegui

The only time I go out is once a week, on Sunday morning, to attend the Sunday street market where fresh fruit and vegetables are sold for a much more reasonable price than in supermarkets. I was surprised to see many older adults doing their weekly shopping. Even though vendors and customers wear masks, and the city hall sends out inspection teams to enforce the preventive measures, social distancing is not really respected. Besides, it is common that people touch different products before selecting which ones to buy. It is indeed quite risky to go to the street market. According to the last epidemiological report from the Ministry of Health on April 20th, Santiago is the administrative region with the second-highest number of confirmed cases in the Metropolitan Region. Hopefully, some initiatives to help older adults have been displayed throughout the city, with some groups relying on volunteers to do the shopping for them. Digital exclusion and isolation were already a concern for older adults long before the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis seems to have exacerbated what was already there.