We are inventive, we are used to turning technologies to good.
The world of lockdown to which we’re becoming habituated at the moment has produced some amazing upsides. The number of people volunteering, the resurgence of local community initiatives, the selfless dedication of key workers across the world and the recognition of their sacrifice by the general public are among the most visible. As many regular readers of this blog are likely to be aware, there has also been an outpouring of interest and engagement in software- and hardware-related projects to help, from infection-tracking apps to 3D-printing of PPE. Companies have made training and educational materials available for free, and there are attempts around the world to engage and contribute to the public commonwealth.
Sadly, not all of the news is good. There has been a rise in phishing attacks, and the lack of appropriate or sufficient security in commonly-used apps such as Zoom has become frightenly evident. There’s an article to write here about the balance between security, usability and cost, but I’m going to save that for another day.
Somewhere in the middle, between the obvious positives and obvious negatives, there are some developments which most of us probably accept at necessary, but which aren’t things that we’d normally welcome. Beyond the obvious restrictions on movement and public gatherings, there are a number of actions which governments, in particular, a retaking which have generally negative impacts on human rights and civil liberties, as outlined in this piece by The Guardian. The article lists numerous examples of governments imposing, or considering the imposition of, measures which would normally be quickly attacked by human rights groups, and resisted by most citizens. Despite the headline, which suggests that the article will deal with how difficult these measures will be to remove after the end of the crisis, there is actually little discussion, beyond a note that “[w]hether that surveillance is eventually rolled back will depend on public oversight.”
I think that we need to go beyond just “oversight” and start planning now for public action. In the communities in which I live and work, there is a general expectation that the world – software, management, government, data – is becoming more, not less open. We are in grave danger of losing that openness even once the need for these government measures diminish. Governments – who will see the wider intelligence-gathering and control opportunities of these changes – will espouse the view that “we need these measures in place in order to be able to react quickly if the same thing happens again”, and, if we’re not careful, public sentiment, bruised and bloodied by the pandemic, will quietly acquiesce, and we will see improvements in human and civil rights rolled back decades, and damaged further by the availability of cheap, mobile, networked technology.
If we believe that openness is a public good, then we need to think how to counter the arguments which we will hear from governments, and be ready to be vocal – not just with counter-arguments, but with counter-proposals. This pandemic is unlike either of the World Wars of the 20th Century, when a clear ending was marked, and there was the opportunity (sadly denied to many citizens of the former USSR) to regain civil liberties and roll back the restrictions of the war years. Nor is it even like the aftermath of the 9/11, that event which has impacted the intelligence and security landscape of the past two decades, where there is (was?) at least a set of (posited) human foes to target. In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, the “enemy” is amorphous and will be around for decades to come. The measures to combat it – and its successors – will only be slowly reduced, and some will not be.
We need to fight against those measures which are unnecessary, and we need to find alternatives – transparent, public alternatives – to measures which may have some positive effects, but whose overall impact on society and human rights is clearly negative. In a era where big data is becoming pervasive, and the tools to mine it tractable, we need to provide international mechanisms to share and use that data in ways which do not benefit any single government, bloc, or section of society. We are inventive, we are used to turning technologies to good. This is the time we need to do it, and do it quickly. We can make a difference by being open, but we need to start now.
0 – Personal Protection Equipment.
1 – although note that the company is reported to be making improvements to at least one area of concern to some – routing of traffic through China.