Contact Tracing

Contact tracing is a necessary step

We’re entering the period of local pandemic (whether we’re ready or not) during which we open up our communities, track where we go and who we see, rigorously rest, and then retreat to our isolation should anyone test positive for Coronavirus.

Contact tracing — the process of keeping track of who you might be putting at risk of infection should you become sick — is a necessary step in increasing socialization. When done as an individual, this is record keeping. When doing it through computers, it is surveillance. We could track where we go through rigorous record keeping, which I think would not work out so well for me personally. Alternatively, we could deploy or commandeer a mobile app that would take care of keeping track where everyone is and when they’re there. [1]

[1]: Not everyone has a mobile phone. Let’s acknowledge that.

Contact tracing is surveillance

Computer assisted contact tracing is surveillance, and it will likely be carried out by corporations and governments. It’s information being gathered on our activities and associations, stored and analyzed, and used to report on the social and physical networks we build. This is a flagrant violation of our rights to privacy, to freedom of association, to freedom of assembly. Who we see and where we go will be turned into data points, stored and monitored.

Monitoring has a chilling effect. When people know they are being monitored, it affects their behavior. This is not just that bad behavior is deterred (and it generally is not), but people who would otherwise do harmless or even benevolent things do not, because they are afraid of the side effects it will have on them.

We will get used to surveillance. Whenever we lose some aspect of our privacy, we eventually get used to it. We stop considering it wrong or even an inconvenience, and are less inclined to argue about future erosion of our rights and privacy. When we become acclimated to the loss of a right, when we normalize it, we don’t even think to ask for it back. Rarely do we succeed in rolling back oppressive policies.

Free software is not enough to fight surveillance

Whenever we are being required to use a piece of software, the relevant organizations call for the demand that that software be free: released under a licensing that makes the code available, usable, shareable, and modifiable by anyone. This is a a reasonable request to make when dealing with an otherwise harmless piece of software, however contact tracing contains the potential to be weaponized against individuals and whole populations, carries with it chilling effects, and if, in fact, just another piece of surveillance technology. Even free technology can be unethical technology.

We must create a solution that protects people.

It is not enough to condemn using a technical solution – we must create one that protects the privacy and rights of those using it. Mobile technology is wonderful and we have this amazing opportunity to leverage the fact most of us carry around little computers when we’re on the move. We have the chance to create something that empowers us, giving us the freedom to leave our homes and begin to open our lives up again while building in fail safes for when people begin to get sick.

Software using a free license is part of this story, because it will create accountability for the creators of that software, as the working parts will be verifiable by third parties. However, it is imperative that the software itself is also designed to respect the fundamental physical and digital rights of the people using it: we must protect their anonymity, we must protect their freedom of movement, freedom of association, and freedom of speech. We must give them the opportunity to move through this world knowing they are being protected, not surveilled.