Care and Surveillance in Ireland

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Author: Daniel Miller, UCL Anthropology and Pauline Garvey, Maynooth University.

Fieldsite: Ireland

In this instance, the question of the balance between care and surveillance is being posed in relation to the response to Covid-19, but it had already emerged as one of the main findings of the ASSA project. This was because even prior to the virus it was clear that the development of smartphones as an everyday technology has highlighted this dilemma. The reason is that smartphones are so clearly both a step-change in the possibilities of care at a distance and also of personal surveillance. Two of the best examples have to do with parent-child relationships. What parent does not view monitoring of their eleven-year old’s use of digital communication as care? What teenager does not regard the very same practice as surveillance?

A similar issue arose when we found that recently retired people were having to take on the role of being children again, but this time because of the huge amount of time and effort required to look after parents in their nineties who had become frail. Poignant examples concerned individuals who had intended to retire, but were in effect now full time employed in helping a parent living at home with dementia. Once again, the issue tended to be that in this case the oldest generation still want to preserve dignity, autonomy and the sense that they are not being a burden. On the other hand, they may also refuse to use digital technologies precisely because that forces the next generation to see them personally. For the sixty-year-olds who have just learnt to use smartphones, they were hoping that this would enable them to embrace the world of younger people, but find instead they are spending their day in WhatsApp groups for sharing the responsibility in keeping an eye on the elderly. These WhatsApp groups had become an almost ubiquitous presence, it was hard to imagine that any frail older person with family had not resulted in the formation of a WhatsApp group aimed to monitor and support them. In both cases, the core issues was balance – how much monitoring remained an expression of care before it drifts into unwarranted surveillance.

These were the findings that established this idea of a fine line between care and surveillance at the domestic level. But with the response to Covid-19, the issues involved surface as a key point within wider political and policy decision making.  This has culminated in debates over the potential use of smartphones for contact tracing. In practice, this will always include interviews and other methods but it is the smartphone app that has dominated the arguments over ethics. The core contrasts are regional. People in the West may look aghast at the draconian and authoritarian surveillance in East Asia, often without noting the distinctions between say autocratic China and democratic Taiwan. While people in East Asia may look at the sheer incompetence of populist leaders in the UK and the US whose refusal or incapacity to adopt draconian surveillance is viewed as evidence that these states simply don’t care about their populations.

Ireland lies in neither camp. Its leader was formally a doctor and there is generally a strong sense of citizenship at the local level. To reflect back on the memes that were discussed in an earlier blog post, these often demonstrate a willingness of the general population to assist the police in carrying out constant surveillance over the wider population. There is a good deal of nuance to this. Are the ethics derived from actual health concerns or the state’s interpretation of these? For example, before the easing of lockdown restrictions on 18th May, two couples who trust each other to have been in complete social isolation for a month may feel there is simply no health-based reason for them not to spend time together through a house to house visit. But in terms of state regulation and legality, such action is completely unacceptable.  However, the nuances around meeting non-family members have been a point of controversy during the lockdown and young people, in particular, are often blamed for this behaviour.  This form of criticism can be oversimplified. Balancing concerns over the mental health implications of social isolation along with the concerns and legalities of the lockdown, people struggle to balance a series of concerns simultaneously.

Looking at social media, surveillance of noncompliance seems to be a favoured activity of lockdown.  The two memes presented below give a strong indication of how people tend to narrate this issue of balance between care and surveillance. The meme of the cat is an open acknowledgement that people quite enjoy partaking themselves in surveillance, to become an instrument and extension of this practice. There are plenty of other memes that show support for the local police in this regard. But the other meme also shows that they are well aware that this can be taken to a ridiculous degree, and that it may not be entirely necessary to turf Julie Andrews from the hills. This was one of a series of similar memes, for example, another shows the police breaking up a picture of Leonardo de Vinci’s Last Supper.

From the domestic to the state

The material so far indicates just how prevalent discussions continue to be at a more domestic level about the balance between care and surveillance. These extend to the response to Covid-19 because at least the middle-class older people who represent most of our participants in Ireland identify a kind of citizen’s morality that aligns closely with the state regulations.

For Ireland, as elsewhere, the primary debate is currently focused upon the proposal to launch a contact-tracking app to be downloaded onto people smartphones.

There is an immediate paradox. The social critic Morozov exploded with disbelief on Twitter that we might consider opening ourselves up to something being developed by Apple and Google in collaboration, given all the concern with surveillance capitalism.  Not to mention that this seems a quintessential example of technological solutionism. At a global level, there is much concern with the state’s use of this data. For example, there was controversy last week when contacts tracing information around a new virus outbreak in South Korea depended upon identifying its source in gay clubs, which are highly stigmatised there. Clearly, a contact tracing app is almost designed to provoke the European Data Protection Board, which has stated that “systematic and large scale monitoring of location and/or contacts between natural persons is a grave intrusion into their privacy”.  On the other hand, no-one seems to be contemplating this as other than the lesser of two evils, and since lockdown is the alternative, after two months where repercussions range from a rise in domestic abuse to harsh poverty in some countries, giving up worrying about personal privacy may seem like a very small price to pay.

As it turns out in the subsequent debates, positions ended up in the opposite corner of the boxing ring than one might have expected. The UK’s so-called NHS tracing app is based on centralised data because the UK claims it wants to use that data for other possible health research and benefits. This presents a somewhat greater threat to privacy than the app being developed by Apple and Google because their app leaves the data on people’s phones, unless and until it is actually required by an incident of infection so that it is not exposed to the same risk or leakage as the UK app. In short, the commercial group is favouring a tighter grip on data privacy than the UK state. This also brings out a political issue. Even prior to the ‘crunch time’ represented by Brexit, it has pointed out the problem of the Northern Irish border. It is blindly obvious that such an app needs to work across the Island rather than follow national boundaries.

The Irish government has given this reason for favouring the Apple/Google version over the UK favoured app. There are still many concerns being raised by the media and elsewhere. For example, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Elizabeth Farries, Director of Information Rights as well as a group of scientists and academics have written an open letter asking that Health Service Executive follow the European Data Protection Board recommendations by publishing the app’s specifications for data protection (Farries 2020)[1].

There is considerable discussion in the media. For example, an article in the Irish Independent for May 15th is titled ‘Ireland’s contact-tracing app may struggle – and not just on privacy’. It starts with:

‘Will you download Ireland’s contact-tracing app when it launches? Are you afraid it might sap your battery life? Are you disqualified by your age? Do you fear it’s being used as a trojan horse for State surveillance? Or are you just not really bothered?’

Problems include whether it can be downloaded by those under 16 since they may not be recognised for digital consent.  There are also worries about the effect of Bluetooth deficiencies and the effects of the digital divide on the use of these apps (Farries 2020)[2]. The national news channel RTE included a discussion by Paulo Palmieri on the 28th of April. Palmieri notes that while apps have guaranteed anonymity, it actually isn’t that hard to identify people from smartphone data. His comments seem to reflect a general consensus in the media both in Ireland and elsewhere, which basically assumes this is justified as a solution to lockdown, but on condition that there is an immediate cessation of use just as soon as that is no longer the case. If the main criteria is privacy during its deployment, then the Irish and most government seem to see the commercial version of Apple/Google as actually the better bet.

In our work on smartphones within ASSA we see a strong divergence between the discourse, that is the discussion about smartphones in general, and the practice of using smartphones in everyday life. When it comes to the latter, most users, especially most young users, are well aware that the terms and conditions of many of the most common apps require access to information on their smartphones that go well beyond what that app requires. Yet they rarely hesitate before giving such access. The individual rarely encounters a problem as a result of giving out personal data. At the very most it might be slightly more personalised advertising. Older people tend to be rather more shocked when they realise that their smartphone is keeping track of every place they visit all of the time. But even they give up this data. Once, however, things become a matter of principle and public debate people tend to shift towards the concern with privacy and the anxieties over the use of personal data.

The ASSA project has relevance to this because what is has demonstrated is that the general public has considerable experience in resolving these issues. At the domestic level, in child-parent relations, we are constantly negotiating the fine line between care and surveillance, and this suggests we are well qualified to be consulted on this issue. The same principle should allow the expression of cultural relativism, the acknowledgement that people may see things differently between Sweden and South Korea, and that is as it should be. Within which there could emerge a specifically Irish response to finding this balance if people are brought into the decision.