Government data collection during the COVID Pandemic: Instruments, Impacts and Reluctance
Alexander MacKinnon, Alexandra Pfammatter, Ho Yin Wong, Kerrie O’Leary
Our project investigates the disputed privacy issues relating to the COVID tracing apps and how governments are addressing these issues during the pandemic. We have chosen our own states as specific case studies: Hong-Kong, Switzerland, Ireland and the United Kingdom.
Contact tracing apps are an effective tool in combating corona virus – but they can also be means for state surveillance. Since the pandemic began, we have observed the increasing number of apps people are required to download when in restaurants or ‘scanning’ into venues for contact tracing. We have concerns that these organizations/companies are collecting our data without making it clear what they will use it for and who else will have access to it. As individuals the information collected from these apps may not seem significant but as a collective the data is extremely valuable. The fact that these COVID apps require location settings and blue-tooth to work highlights this further. Data arms those in power with the ability to abuse/misuse the data in ways that are harmful to the data subject.
For our research we set out certain questions we wanted to answer; How did each app come to be, what discussions and values are they built on? Was the final software produced by a public or private enterprise? What do their terms and conditions look like, especially with regards to privacy? How safe are the applications? How are they designed when it comes to transparency and accessibility? Do governments have specific legislation in place to prevent the national departments of health from sharing this data? Is this data available to any other corporations outside of the government? If so, is the public aware and how did they give consent to share their information? For how long will the data be kept post-COVID?
With our research findings we decided to produce a screen recording and a book of visuals. Both artefact’s aim to encourage the viewer to think more deeply about the COVID apps and question the different technical decisions their governments made which ultimately influence the level of privacy.
Due to their nature, the privacy problems that came with the COVID-19 pandemic are difficult to visually represent. Because of the physical restrictions that the crisis brought with it, the channels on which such information could be shared was limited. Furthermore, in many countries news from official sources was quite poorly communicated. This led to the outcome, that self-directed internet investigation was the easiest and most reliable way for most people to get access to information about the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the medium itself has very much influenced the nature of COVID-19 reporting and research. We tried to reflect these unique circumstances in the form of our artefact. The documentary style screen-based performance is visualizing our own investigation – navigating through massive loads of data, trying to avoid false claims in an extremely heated debate, and connecting shifting information about a topic whose nature is still being explored and therefore in constant flux. The form was also inspired by the works of several artists. We drew for example from Manu Luksch’s strategy of using invasive technologies to simultaneously expose our often depended relationship with the very same. Other projects that we looked into were the desktop documentation Watching The Pain of Others by Chloé Galibert-Laîné and the visual essays by Hito Steyerl, which show the possibilities of this medium to dissect and connect sources of vastly different origin and form – an aspect that was crucial for our artefact.
Due to the vast scope of the pandemic and our limited time for this project, our artefact only focuses on four countries in depth. Inspired by digital artists, Aaron Koblin and David McCandless we decided a visual representation of the rest of the world’s tracing apps would be a good balance. David McCandless is a data visual artist who uses simple and elegant designs to make complex information accessible. This style combined with Aaron Koblin’s use of lines to create visual stories influenced how we designed our book. Using the database compiled by MIT, we created the book in Processing using the information collected. Using only two colours and basic shapes (lines and circles), the key information is highlighted for the reader. We intentionally juxtapose the minimal sketches produced with the complex technologies employed by the apps.
Visual Representation of data compiled by MIT (click here for more details)
COVID tracking apps have only been on the market since March, at the earliest. As a result we found there was little theoretical perspectives available focusing on these tracking apps specifically. We tried however to explore our nations using the theoretical perspective of Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour and Benjamin Bratton, which we discuss in more detail in our podcast. These writers and sociologists have previously studied and written about the impacts of living in a panoptical society, whereby surveillance dictates behaviour. We can see from Ho Yin’s research on the app in Hong Kong, that people are resisting this control by creating noise and scanning multiple QR codes to distort the information being collected by the government. It is widely accepted the speed these apps needed to be built and that some details had to be overlooked but it is now of paramount that each country’s app is transparent.
An important voice throughout this discourse is Ivanna Bartoletti’s whose writings guided us within the context of our project. Bartoletti is a privacy and ethics specialist based in the UK who highlights the importance for rules and regulations with regards to the handling of data. She believes that privacy is a collective worth, we need to look beyond the individual and see it as a collective value. There is very little our governments can do with just one person downloading the app, but when millions are using it, the danger becomes exponentially worse.
A year since the pandemic has begun, and it remains unclear when it will end. One thing that is clear however is the world’s need for a new era of data governance.
Click below to listen to podcast:
The research that we present in our artefact is based on several different theories of surveillance, control and data politics, some of which we discuss in more detail in our podcast:
Q&A with Ivana Bartoletti: How can we protect our security and privacy during the pandemic?(https://www.fashionroundtable.co.uk/news/2020/5/19/qampa-with-ivana-bartoletti-how-can-we-protect-our-security-and-privacy-during-the-pandemic)
J.J. Sylvia IV: The Biopolitics of Social Distancing, 2020 (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2056305120947661)
Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish, 1975
Benjamin Bratton: 18 Lessons from Quarantine Urbanism
Benoit Van Overstraeten: French philosopher Latour urges no return to pre-lockdown normal, 2020 (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-france-latour-inte-idUSKBN22K22G)
Maša Galič, Tjerk Timan, Bert-Jaap Koops: An Overview of Surveillance Theories from the Panopticon to Participation, 2016
Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 2019
Ivana Bartoletti: An Artificial Revolution: On Power, Politics and AI, 2020
Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, 2005
Adi Kuntsman, Esperanza Miyake, Sam Martin: Rethinking Digital Health: Data Appisation and the (im)possibility of ‘Opting Out’, 2019
Patrick Howell O'Neill, Tate Ryan-Mosley, Bobbie Johnson: A flood of coronavirus apps are tracking us. Now it’s time to keep track of them