Maintaining trust with transparent and accountable COVID-19 surveillance

It has the potential to save lives, but mass government and private sector surveillance during the pandemic has to be transparent and ethical, else we risk an easy turn towards a dystopian future.

The global war on COVID-19 has gone digital. Digital surveillance using cameras, applications, mobile devices, personal data and web-based location services such as those on offer from Facebook and Google are being pulled in to fight the spread of the pandemic. China, amidst a flurry of human rights concerns, was first to the surveillance line, but the country’s move to closely monitor the movement and behaviour of its citizens is being mimicked by governments around the world. Democratic or not. Israel and Russia have already set things in motion while America, Iran and Thailand are paying very close attention.

It will only be for thirty days, say the governments that are sliding new coronavirus surveillance parameters into law. It will only be for the protection of people. Yet digital and human rights groups have all signed one letter to global governments asking them to use a measured response that respects human rights and keeps surveillance measures ‘lawful and transparent’. The letter, signed by more than 100 groups that include Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, emphasises the need to not use coronavirus as a way of instituting government mass surveillance and invasive digital intelligence.

The hard reality of this ‘new normal’ is that many of these surveillance solutions could be invaluable in changing the course of COVID-19. The challenge is not in preventing their use, but in managing the ethics and transparency that accompany this use.

But before people can make informed choices around the use of their data and the transparency of access, they need to understand how governments and organisations are using technology to detect COVID-19.

01: Government mass surveillance: Artificial intelligence vs. fundamental ethics

A recent article in the Guardian, explained how Palantir, a US big data firm, and Faculty, a British artificial intelligence (AI) startup were collaborating to consolidate government databases and build predictive models around COVID-19. This data repository of COVID-19 content was commissioned by the NHSX and consists only of aggregated and anonymised data that has been supplied by the NHS.

A Whitehall source said that they were 'alarmed at the unprecedented amounts of confidential health information being swept up in the project, which they said was progressing at alarming speed and with insufficient regard for privacy, ethics or data protection.'(The Guardian, April 2020)

Other than the fact that two private companies are sifting gaily through litres of valuable data, the problem here lies in the fact that the data has been anonymised. This means it has been decoupled from the individual, removing their ability to have any control over its usage and potentially being used to develop an AI model that may discriminate against them.  

Regardless of how important the processing of this data may be, it is essential that any output is made entirely transparent to those that the data will impact.

cctv using facial recognition technology
The tech ‘solutions’ for coronavirus take the surveillance state to the next level.
Source: The Guardian

02: COVID-19 first-party contact tracing: Bluetooth contact tracing

So, Google and Apple have decided to team up on a project that will use Bluetooth to trace the spread of COVID-19. The apps designed by the team will be fully interoperable across both the iOS and Android platforms, and will use the Bluetooth features built into mobile phones to track if a person has come in contact with someone who has COVID-19. This type of coronavirus surveillance will allow for people to self-isolate when they are alerted by the app that someone they came into contact with has been diagnosed.

Great in theory. In practice, the data generated by the app could give both companies a massive network graph that will help their respective AIs to understand unfathomable amounts about how people interact. The development of a highly interoperable contact tracking interface, at an OS level, raises concerns around potential future uses once the COVID-19 pandemic has ended.

A similar solution is being implemented in Singapore and Australia. Singapore has already adopted a sophisticated app that can track people infected with the virus and the Australian federal government is considering rolling out this mass surveillance solution.

03: Coronavirus surveillance: real-time facial recognition and thermal monitoring

In a previous article we looked at how companies and governments were using facial recognition and thermal sensors to detect COVID-19. These have not slowed down. Vantiq, a software development company that has spent several years developing surveillance solutions, is using AI, thermal imaging, facial recognition and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to create a real-time mass surveillance platform. The company is one of many working with governments and institutions to implement coronavirus surveillance systems across public areas such as airports and factories and sports venues.

While there are clear concerns around transparency and privacy, perhaps the biggest concerns should be around what this type of government mass surveillance can enable. Where is that person going? Do they have a temperature? Are they wearing a mask? Are they going into places that they are forbidden to go? In China, the Vantiq solution was used to monitor the temperatures of employees in factories, blacklisting them until they are cleared of the virus. In the USA, a similar system has been implemented to ensure that workers can continue working while reducing the risk of infection.

So, what next?

While these are only some of the ways in which digital is being leveraged for coronavirus surveillance, there are many other solutions that have been put in place. Israel’s Security Agency was given the authority to receive, collect and process technological information regarding confirmed COVID-19 patients, China introduced software that tracks people based on their colour-coded categories of red, yellow and green, and the US is using location data from citizen mobile devices to understand the spread of the disease.

These measures are designed to protect people. To protect citizens from harm and manage the overburdening of beleaguered healthcare systems. The intention is, for the most part, good. But the road to a dystopian future is only a few turns away, unless transparency and accountability solutions are mandated alongside every COVID-19 surveillance system, whether small or large. Solutions that ensure the immediate and future auditability of any outcomes from the processing of data.

FortyEight has recently launched a software solution that can be integrated within any coronavirus surveillance platform to provide transparency, compliance with GDPR, and accountability to citizens. It’s an immensely valuable tool that will not only ease consumer fears, but will allow companies to embrace coronavirus surveillance solutions without losing the publics’ trust and confidence.

Nicholas Oliver

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