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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.

There is a fine line between care and surveillance

Daniel Miller31 March 2020

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

When the ASSA team returned from the field, and we came together to collectively decide our ‘findings’. The title we gave to one of these findings was There is a fine line between care and surveillance. Today, thanks to the coronavirus, this has become a global finding. But anthropology has a good deal to contribute by examining the wider context of what hasn’t changed and what has.

On the one hand, this is an issue that pertains across the whole spectrum of human experience. A working definition of God, for many religions, would be a being who sees everything and cares for everyone. In a recent blog post, Wang examines the acceptance of surveillance in China in the light of traditions of a paternalistic Emperor and now Party. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the fundamental dilemma of contemporary parenting. The blog Parenting for a Digital Future is often a discussion of this balance. The reason that was a finding in respect to our own research was that it generally also applies to care for the elderly – it referred to the problem of simultaneously respecting the autonomy and dignity of older people, while also keeping a watchful eye.

If, on the one hand, this is a reflection of an age-old and ubiquitous truism, then, on the other hand, it has been hugely re-configured as a result of the smartphone. This was the other reason the phrase worked so well as a finding from our research. Never before has it been possible to follow every individual and every interaction at this detailed level, providing the minutiae for Big Data analysis. This has been the primary mechanism by which states have tracked who precisely needs to be in isolation following possible contact with the virus. It was states such as South Korea, where collective knowledge has generally been seen as a greater good than individual privacy which went furthest in this tracking of individuals through their smartphones. Most of our current discussions regarding the possibilities of both care and surveillance are premised on everyone using smartphones.

It is important to retain this anthropological sense of the broader context in order to help us find the balance we seek. As a recent article in The Economist noted, if we don’t want to justify mass surveillance in normal times, we need to see how democratic Taiwan has actually been just as effective as the autocratic mainland Chinese government in controlling the virus, though in stark contrast to the US. But we also need to respect the way some populations do experience surveillance as care, as Xinyuan Wang notes in her blog post. The key point here is the expression ‘there is a fine line’.

We hope that one of our contributions will be publishing the details of how care for older people via smartphones seems to operate within these sensitive contradictions of autonomy as against surveillance. These findings may help us when it comes to both informing and critiquing states and policymakers as they, in turn, learn their lessons from these extraordinary times.