Technology as innovation and intrusion in the age of Covid-19

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Author: Rina Arya is Professor of Visual Culture and Theory at the University of Huddersfield

Fieldsite: Rina Arya’s research takes place from her home in Cheshire.

The line between care and surveillance will always be blurred. In recent years, with the rise of digital technology, surveillance measures have increased nationally and been incorporated into daily life, becoming a force for good or otherwise. Criticisms have been made about the British government about its speed of response to the coronavirus crisis and, more recently, in its measures to ease the lockdown. Guidelines have been issued about social distancing within a framework of citizenship that has called upon individuals to think about the greater good. This has required individuals to undertake self-isolation and to maintain social distancing in public. Surveillance has remained apparently low key; one of the main problems has been about dispersing individuals and groups who disregard the government’s legitimating reasons for being outdoors. That said, the initial ‘Stay at home’ policy, which was often reiterated without caveats, needed qualification for essential workers, for example, to declare their status on social media sites to others as a way to identify their front-line endeavours.

The situation concerning the extent of care and amount of surveillance in other countries is more severe and dependent on the political bent of their governments. In France, individuals have had to produce a form detailing their reasons for being out of their home and their intended destination. One of the latest innovations being trialled and rolled out are downloadable apps to track the spread of the coronavirus. This is undoubtedly the most effective way of tracing infected individuals and the people that they come into contact with. It has been used in China, South Korea and Germany. But there is also a pernicious side to this, which involves the exercise of power. This is seen in quasi-authoritarian states including India. Here the practice of care is viewed very differently and especially as a form of paternalistic authority. Unlike other democracies, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has not made himself very present to the people in press conferences and expects citizens to trust his instructions without question.

A recent government initiative has been the state-built Aarogya Setu app that identifies the risk of catching the virus as well as tracking its spread. The app’s efficiency increases with use, undoubtedly an advantage in such a densely populated country. It recently became mandatory for employees in the public and private sectors and was a stated condition for point of entry for Indian nationals who were being repatriated. Citizens have not been appropriately apprised as to how their data will be used. This is worrying for a number of reasons. There is a distinct lack of data protection laws and poor infrastructure and corruption prevent a national system of surveillance. This coupled with a nationalist government brings into question how data will be used. The force of authoritarianism has made its mark in India since March 2020 and this has been seen in the retrospective punishments meted out to journalists who have been critical of the government, and in the brutality inflicted by the police in enforcing authority on the citizens done under the auspices of public safety. Ordinarily, this would have resulted in a public outcry in the form of mass protests but these expressions of justice and democracy have been suspended under lockdown, making the question of surveillance even more pernicious.

In this unsettling climate of fear, an app is arguably the most effective and reliable way of information and prevention. Countries have their own ideas about how to harness technology to control the spread of infection. South Korea engaged in an early strategy of extensive tracking and mass testing. But some question the ethics of monitoring, especially since it was known that credit card transactions were being used to track data. In any system of care, it is a trade-off; the overall benefits need to be weighed up against the pitfalls. Furthermore, allowing some ease of lockdown whilst keeping people safe may contribute to better mental being. The degrees of surveillance vary across apps depending on whether GPS or any other location-tracker is used or not. Equally pressing is what data are collected and how they are used – essentially for what purposes, and whether this involves underhand practices such as the monitoring of movement or for ‘immunity-passports’. In the UK an NHS app is currently been trialled on the Isle of Wight, with a view to rolling it out into a national programme in forthcoming weeks. This contact-tracing app is designed to track symptoms and then, if need be, to direct users to a call centre for testing as well as alerting people with whom they came into. In its current stage of development, it has a number of limitations that need to be overcome if it is to be effective; the main limitation being that it does not yet permit the input of test results, thereby limiting its usefulness.