Reflections on surveillance in the midst of a pandemic | Opinion – analysis
We live in an age marked by a general phenomenon: surveillance. Operated through electronics and analyzed through algorithms, daily monitoring of the minutiae of our lives has become the defining characteristic of our times. The data extracted from our mundane daily life is collected, collated and analyzed; and came back to us in many ways, including recommendations on what else we’d like to buy in shopping apps, how our social media feeds are sorted, and, as activists have discovered, even government officials came forward on Their doors. Much ink has been spilled in describing the many ways such surveillance can be harmful, especially in the hands of private corporations and authoritarian regimes.
But, as with everything, the phenomenon of vigilance itself is value neutral. It is not inherently good or inherently bad. Its damages and benefits are made operational by the way it is implemented. While there are great reasons to stop collecting and collecting so much user data; There are some spaces in which surveillance is a vital tool. One of those areas is public health. Surveillance as a tool to study and safeguard epidemics is as old a method as modern medicine. Since Hippocrates’ time, observation and data analysis have been the cornerstone of modern medicine. Throughout history, attempts at early detection and effective disease surveillance have helped not only slow the spread of communicable diseases, but also understand the diseases themselves and develop treatment paradigms. Polio is a case in point. The complete eradication of polio in India was a resounding victory for effective surveillance and reporting.
Integrated health surveillance is listed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the public health arm of the United Nations (UN) as one of its important functions. In such surveillance, countries should report any case of infectious diseases notifiable to WHO. The data collected in this way helps to analyze the spread and severity of the disease and to establish protocols quickly and efficiently to manage the crisis and contain the spread in the event of an epidemic. Disease surveillance, to be effective, must be continuous and systematic. This automatically means continuous data collection from everywhere.
Compared to the type and amount of data data brokers have about our daily habits, the amount of viable health data that is available for analysis, even in countries like the United States and Great Britain, is abysmal. Even within the highly valued National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, data sets are scarce and often disconnected. This makes it difficult for clinicians to track patient histories in all regions or find common threads between diseases and treatment protocols within the system.
In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, finding those who carry the virus and preventing others from coming into contact with them is so far the only effective means of preventing the spread. But here, it is the search process that has triggered the surveillance and privacy alarms. Whether European, Israeli and Chinese governments access location data from mobile phones to ensure that people obey the shutdown orders, or that the Karnataka government publishes online the names and contact details of people who have Returned from abroad, individual privacy violations in these pandemic times are becoming vulgar.
In cases where diseases carry stigma, such as HIV, knowledge of the history of the disease and violation of case anonymity can be particularly damaging. We have already seen this in India with coronavirus cases, where individuals and families face social ostracism. Several Indians have even decided to exclude doctors working on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus.
It is in this context that government agencies must take privacy into account as they continue to fight the pandemic. As several commentators have pointed out, measures taken during extreme situations have a cunning way of turning back as usual, even after the emergency is over. And as we know from several generations of caste discrimination, social ostracism is easily maintained. Another clear result of privacy breaches is that fear of ostracism and mistrust by authorities could prevent people from reporting their symptoms and travel history. Without protocols for data security and preventing personal data from being made public; Case surveillance in the Internet age can have dangerous consequences. The phone numbers and addresses of specific people, for example, can be easily selected from a public database of people returning home from abroad. Linking this database to many others can also reveal many other details of individuals, to anyone who comes looking.
In such a situation, while it may seem like a worthy trade to sacrifice individual privacy to contain the pandemic, it is the decisions made in the eye of the storm that will spread outward, creating situations and precedents for future emergencies. A pandemic in the era of digital surveillance and big data exacerbates public vulnerabilities; contributing to the impending health and economic crisis. Therefore, this is the best time to ask questions about the effectiveness of surveillance in every administrative block, from individual towns and residential complexes to nation states and the WHO itself. What is the information that is important to know, who needs to know, how much does it require dissemination, how can it be collated and reported effectively, and how can we protect people who are already dealing with fear and uncertainty? Important questions to ask.
Vidya Subramanian is a postdoctoral fellow, Center for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay
The opinions expressed are personal.