The new transparency: smartphones, data tracking, and COVID-19

| March 11, 2020

The novel coronavirus COVID-19 is revealing the extent to which new control mechanisms enabled by digital technologies are becoming an integral part of modern life.

Highly publicised technological responses to the virus confirm suspicions that we’re living in an era of “ techno-solutionism” – the idea that with the right devices, software and code can overcome even the biggest of our problems.

For example, hopes are pinned on artificial intelligence being used to quickly develop vaccines and diagnose cases. Predictably, blockchain proselytisers have proposed using the technology to track contagion, manage insurance payments, and maintain medical supply chains.

In the immediate term, contingency plans for online education, home-working and even the live-streaming of funerals are being touted as effective ways to limit virus transmission.

Yet perhaps the most telling high-tech lessons that are beginning to emerge from COVID-19 relate to the ways in which smartphones and other personal devices can be used to manage our everyday lives.

Mobile phone providers are handing over detailed records of their customers’ movements, as well as informing users if they’ve been in any affected areas in the past several weeks.

This is the first pandemic you can access from your smartphone. Most of the networked world is currently plugged into an ongoing flow of information about the spread of the disease. People’s phones are buzzing to a continuous online churn of news feeds, social media speculation, and detailed online trackers and apps that provide regular statistical updates.

In countries such as Australia and the US – so far relatively unaffected – this circulation of information far outstrips that of the virus, making its all-too-rapid march seem ominously slow. The disconnect between the drumbeat of mediated urgency and the routine rhythm of daily life exacerbates the need to respond, triggering spates of disorderly panic-buying that we then see recirculated back on social media and online news.

2- way flows of information

COVID-19 is also showing us how smartphones can be repurposed as monitoring systems to support the management and control of the public. This is most evident in the official responses to COVID-19 in China, South Korea and other countries that have borne the full force of the virus up until now.

In these areas and elsewhere, smartphones are not only presenting the public with information about the virus, they’re also being used to present a wealth of information about the public to authorities desperately working to manage and control the spread of disease.

To date, official uses of personal data and tracking apps to tackle COVID-19 offer a sobering insight into the levels of transparency now surrounding the lives of smartphone-using populations. At a basic level, for example, mobile phone providers are handing over detailed records of their customers’ movements, as well as informing users if they’ve been in any affected areas in the past several weeks.

Smartphone data has proven an effective addition to countries’ “contact tracing” activities, providing insight about the movements and social contacts of those affected by the virus. Singapore’s tracking of the virus has relied on data from popular ride-sharing apps.

Elsewhere, Taiwanese authorities are already being congratulated for their use of cellphone tracking coupled with data from the country’s national health insurance, immigration and customs databases to limit the spread of the virus across the island.

At the same time, we’re witnessing the rapid rollout of apps that “locked down” populations are being required to download and use as travel restrictions and quarantines begin to be enforced.

For example, South Korean developers have created apps that allow users not only to track the most recent case reports, and where these were, but also how close they are at any given time to reported sites of infection. The Korean authorities have also developed a GPS tracking app to ensure people don’t break quarantine restrictions. If they move beyond their restricted area, the app sounds an alarm to authorities.

Korean health officials are also using apps to broadcast “safety guidance texts” – leading to the public shaming of infected individuals whose identities and private lives are laid bare by the detailed public reporting of their daily activities.

China’s mandatory app

Perhaps the most sophisticated uses have emerged in China. For example, an affiliate of the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has developed the Alipay Health Code app that authorities are requiring people to install on their phones to assess their risk and quarantine status. Once installed, this app lets users know whether they’re allowed to leave their homes or use mass transit, or whether their risk level has consigned them to quarantine.

The app provides users with a colour code to be shown at checkpoints, and on request. “Green” status allows people to move freely through the city, whereas red and yellow result in different levels of quarantine. It also reportedly shares data with the police, potentially alerting authorities of individual quarantine status, and of their movements.

[These technologies] raise a host of questions about the effectiveness of current and future systems developed under time pressure, and with an urgency that dispenses with questions of human and civil rights.

Of course, the accuracy and reliability of all of these technologies remain in question. Some in China who have had no direct exposure to anyone with the virus find themselves stuck with “red alert” status that makes it impossible to go to work or even to return home, and are left to guess why.

Errors and all, the rapid mobilisation of these technologies is a foretaste of the forms of monitoring and control that will likely be brought to bear in various future forms of emergency and crisis.

In this sense, one of the key discussions that we have to take forward in the aftermath of COVID-19 is what roles we’re prepared to let our digital devices and personal data play. If these technologies are carefully vetted and implemented in fair and accountable ways, they have important potential benefits.

However, they also raise a host of questions about the effectiveness of current and future systems developed under time pressure, and with an urgency that dispenses with questions of human and civil rights.

Security staff check apartment residents’ temperatures in Chengdu, China. Photo: 4X-image/iStock.

These aren’t questions that relate solely to the outbreak of subsequent pandemics and global emergencies. COVID-19 is raising general issues that we can use to reshape the ways that technologies are used in society from this point onwards. We’re already seeing talk of the virus acting as a wake-up call for universities to make more permanent switches to online teaching, as well as the need to increase levels of public “digital literacy” about online disinformation.

So, too, COVID-19 might act as a prompt for populations of countries such as Australia to pay closer attention to the kinds of transparency and control associated with our technology use.

How much freedom will we sacrifice?

What levels of autonomy, freedom and privacy are we happy to give away through the increased use of our devices? What potential forms of population control might be enforced on the back of the mass adoption of new technologies? How comfortable would we be with fitness trackers that relay our biometric results to authorities to track our health?

Would we welcome spaces that automatically restrict our access to work, home, or transportation, based on passively collected data about our movements, our online activity, and our social contacts?

If these are seen to be future viable forms of societal management, then serious questions first need to be asked about potential biases and errors in the algorithms that make all this possible, as well how to counter the likely new forms of exclusion visited upon the large minorities of people who are not connected.

Digital technology might well play an important part in the immediate management of this current emergency. Once the virus has subsided, then more lasting questions remain.

This article was written by Mark Andrejevic, a Professor of Communications and Media Studies and Neil Selwyn, a Professor in the Faculty of Education, at Monash University.  It was published by Lens.