Why governments and corporations need to demonstrate principled authority in the face of global health surveillance

Article first published in Blink, the blog of surveillance-and-society

In this blog post, Kirstie Ball, Sally Dibb, and Sara Degli Esposti continue Blink's series of scholarly responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The image is entitled 'Untitled: Found objects placed in resin' by Liam Ainscough.

Governments of all colours are pursuing mass smartphone surveillance to monitor social distancing and to contact trace people in the face of coronavirus. A surprising range of countries are adopting new surveillance measures to track population movements, with little indication of when or how these will be repealed when the crisis is over. Enlightened academics, such as Carmela Troncoso and colleagues are scoping out privacy friendly approaches to contact-tracing. Jung Won Son has suggested that the public acceptance of surveillance was a key factor in South Korea. But with the success of contact tracing resting on the majority of the population using a tracking app, why should other publics accept this kind of surveillance? What would make them more likely to do so? One answer lies in the exercise of principled authority.

There are certainly some important principles to be discussed when considering mass surveillance.  Some relate to data protection: Proportionality, purpose limitation, consent and other data protection principles are crucial, but, curiously, have not appeared in the public debate. Privacy regulators have been watching from the sidelines as the social media platforms, tech startups, healthcare providers and university research centres collaborate to model, visualise, score and rank how communities are behaving during the lockdown. Assurances of anonymity dominate, although it is difficult to see how this could be achieved with the mix of genetic and geolocation data that is proposed to be collected. Others relate to the social consequences of surveillance. Surveillance scholars who were around at the time of 9/11 will feel a twinge of familiarity at the current state of affairs. Each state of emergency legitimates a step change in the way information about people is gathered, analysed and used. Social norms begin to marginalise identities associated with the threat: Flying while Muslim? That was then. Incomers of all kinds, everywhere? This is now. 

It is how governments acknowledge, incorporate and act upon these principled views which influences whether the public accept surveillance or not. Principled authority exists when an institution exercises authority in a trustworthy way: authority which is not only operationally competent in the short term, but which embodies two other important features over time. The first is benevolence: an institution’s demonstrated concern for the collective interests of the communities it is serving.  The second is moral integrity, where the institution is accountable, transparent and does not abuse its power. Recently published research which examined smartphone location tracking surveillance across Europe suggests that its public acceptability depends on these features – competence, benevolence and integrity  –  in different measure.

Benevolence was the most important factor.  Smartphone location tracking was acceptable providing it was implemented with community interests in mind. This provokes many questions in the context of anti-CV smartphone tracking. Which community interests should be prioritised? Those who are well? Those who are sick? Key workers? Those with immunity? Those who have recently travelled? “Outsiders”?  Moreover, who should run the surveillance? Which institution best serves those interests and how local are they to those being tracked? In some national contexts, such as the UK, society is polarised over governmental failures which divide communities and foreground inequalities. It also has draconian communications surveillance laws. How likely are people to download a government phone tracking app in such a context?

Public predisposition towards surveillance also matters. Our results varied according to whether people support or are more sceptical about smartphone location tracking surveillance. While supporters worry more about an institution’s competence to operate a surveillance programme effectively, sceptics want to know that there are mechanisms in place to ensure integrity. Assurances that ‘it works’ and that ‘government knows what it’s doing’, may be convincing for those already in favour of surveillance. These people may be persuaded to ‘trade’ their privacy in the cause of public health, but this is not true for all. This message ignores those sceptics who question whether smartphone tracking may be abused by those in power. They may question what happens when tracking is no longer required. What guarantees can institutions give about how this information is analysed as well as the limitations to its use? Would it be better not to collect this information centrally and instead allow smartphone users to use it for self-management? What if there are corporations involved? Would they profit from health data in unauthorised and undisclosed ways? It is important not to ignore the objections raised by sceptics, whether they are members of the public, activists or regulators. They keep power accountable and push for morally acceptable solutions. 

Health researchers and epidemiologists truly want to deploy health surveillance solutions to curb the pandemic. Yet, if mass surveillance is going to be a response to the pandemic then our research illustrates a very important point.  Pressing ahead with publicly unacceptable surveillance solutions risks ineffective CV tracking because people will not use it.  More than this, if the solution does not incorporate, respond to, and protect different community interests, if moral concerns are not addressed and upheld, whether those be grounded in the data protection principles, freedom of information principles or information self-determination, long term damage to the social fabric will be the result.
It is no surprise that privacy activists and civil libertarians have expressed concerns about authoritarian surveillance measures, calling for full transparency. But why are the regulators still on the sidelines?  Surely now is the time to demonstrate principled authority in the face of the pandemic.  The contributions of all of those sceptics, the legal advocates, activists, scholars and engineers – alongside the regulators - are crucial if mass smartphone tracking is to be effective, acceptable and safe.