Which privacy rights shall we trade this time?
If watching Contagion freaked you out, then you really, really shouldn’t watch Gattaca. In this awesome movie, those with the right level of genetic purity are guaranteed dream jobs and a great standard of living. The rest, having been born with genetic defects, are pariahs living on the fringes of a society that has excluded them. As one of the main characters makes a heroic effort aimed at overcoming the limits placed on him by the system, I recommend you watch it right till the end.
So why am I mentioning this movie? Because one of the effects of the current pandemic is the idea being mooted to create a so-called “COVID pass”. Such a document would be issued to those who have been confirmed as possessing COVID-19 antibodies, meaning people who are healthy and pose no threat to others. The first consequence of this which comes to mind is the exclusion of a large group of people who, due to their social status or health circumstances, become pariahs as in the movie Gattaca. I’ve always wanted to have a second passport (I wrote about it here), I just didn’t know it’s gonna be a virus one.
Such data would be recorded, for example, in the form of an app by which a border guard or government inspector would assess whether a given person may board a plane or go on vacation. Or attend a concert featuring their favorite band. Or work in a factory alongside other employees. In some countries, most of those without passports may be, by an amazing quirk of fate, members of political opposition parties …
Of course, states do not possess such technological capabilities. Similar types of projects would take years and, as we already know, it is days that count in a pandemic situation. So that’s why tech corporations have come to their aid. Google and Apple are already working together in harmony (!) both in order to lighten the government’s load and win some government contracts at the same time (I mean who has the best toys from AI and Big Data?). The same thing is being done by Microsoft and Palantir (a company well known for its contracts with all kinds of American government security services).
And this isn’t even about whether using Bluetooth to check the contact between people or find out who met a COVID-19 carrier is technologically flawed. Why shouldn’t we allow tech corporations to do the government’s job? For the simple reason that a private company’s aim is to maximize profits and increase stock prices and not to take care of the welfare of citizens.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a big tech company has wanted to get its paws on data concerning citizens’ health. In 2015, Google was given access to the medical data of 1.6 million NHS patients in the UK (whose data was not made anonymous!) and which is uploaded to Deep Mind, its own project related to developing artificial intelligence.
And what do companies such as Google need this information for? It’s very simple. The scale of expenditure on servers with images or online advertising can’t be compared with the amount of money which governments, and citizens themselves, spend on healthcare.
Let’s consider what would happen if Google came back to us after some time and presented a new vision of healthcare — a G-wristband sends data to a G-server, thanks to which a patient is diagnosed more quickly and, if transferred to a hospital, it’ll be a G-artificial intelligence program connected to a G-medical device which helps them return to health.
And the government gets the bill to be paid for medical care. So it becomes a piggy bank that the tech corporations will be ever more willing to dip their hands into. And what’s wrong with that? After all we want to treat people effectively, don’t we? What about the side-effects, namely optimizing costs (meaning staff redundancies) and saving only those whom it is worth treating? Does anyone have questions about professional ethics? Sorry, AI doesn’t do professional ethics.
You think this is unlikely? It’s already happening. Just look at the direction which Apple and its ‘ wearables’ division has been going for several years now. Tim Cook’s Apple watches have been incorporating more and more subsystems and sensors which are meant to monitor and take care of our health. It’s enough just to connect it with an AI program at an i-hospital and then issue an i-diagnosis and sell i-medicine …
Undoubtedly, the corresponding regulations will be created and tested in China with the countries of the ‘democratic West’ enthusiastically using and introducing them in their own lands. Just as it was with police surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology.
In her book Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff presents the thesis that after 9/11 attempts to regulate ‘Big Tech’ began to be suppressed by governments (mainly the USA), once they began to be seen as partners in tracking down terrorists.
And these firms took full advantage of the situation, becoming behemoths for whom current attempts at regulation will be almost impossible. And, bit by bit, they are forcing governments to hand over more and more of their rights. Today’s Leviathan has no fangs and has never been weaker while the Chinese dragon continues to grow in strength.
Today, due to the wave of fear caused by the pandemic, we happily go along with all the preventive measures being implemented. We’ve been grounded in our homes and can’t even go to the forest … but sometime soon each one of us will have to install an app that shows where we’ve been and who we’ve met (and, by the way, including our healthcare data). All completely anonymous, of course.
And, also, of course, nobody from the corporations operating such a contract, or party inspectors, will be able to decode such information and share it with others.
The pandemic will pass but the regulations will remain. Just as with the Patriot Act, regulations introduced following the attacks of September 11, 2001, in the USA.
All for our own benefit, of course.
Big thanks to Artur Kurasinski for making this issue happen.