Tag Archives: surveillance

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.

Computing Under Quarantine

Under the current climate of lock-ins, self-isolation, shelter-in-place policies, and quarantine, it is becoming evident to more people the integral role computers play in our lives. Students are learning entirely online, those who can are working from home, and our personal relationships are being carried largely by technology like video chats, online games, and group messages. When these things have become our only means of socializing with those outside our homes, we begin to realize how important they are and the inequity inherent to many technologies.

Someone was telling me how a neighbor doesn’t have a printer, so they are printing off school assignments for their neighbor. People I know are sharing internet connections with people in their buildings, when possible, to help save on costs with people losing jobs. I worry now even more about people who have limited access to home devices or poor internet connections.

As we are forced into our homes and are increasingly limited in the resources we have available, we find ourselves potentially unable to easily fill material needs and desires. In my neighborhood, it’s hard to find flour. A friend cannot find yeast. A coworker couldn’t find eggs. Someone else is without dish soap. Supply chains are not designed to meet with the demand currently being exerted on the system.

This problem is mimicked in technology. If your computer breaks, it is much harder to fix it, and you lose a lot more than just a machine – you lose your source of connection with the world. If you run out of toner cartridges for your printer – and only one particular brand works – the risk of losing your printer, and your access to school work, becomes a bigger deal. As an increasing number of things in our homes are wired, networked, and only able to function with a prescribed set of proprietary parts, gaps in supply chains become an even bigger issue. When you cannot use whatever is available, and instead need to wait for the particular thing, you find yourself either hoarding or going without. What happens when you can’t get the toothbrush heads for your smart toothbrush due to prioritization and scarcity with online ordering when it’s not so easy to just go to the pharmacy and get a regular toothbrush?

In response to COVID-19 Adobe is offering no-cost access to some of their services. If people allow themselves to rely on these free services, they end up in a bad situation when a cost is re-attached.

Lock-in is always a risk, but when people are desperate, unemployed, and lacking the resources they need to survive, the implications of being trapped in these proprietary systems are much more painful.

What worries me even more than this is the reliance on insecure communication apps. Zoom, which is becoming the default service in many fields right now, offers anti-features like attendee attention tracking and user reporting.

We are now being required to use technologies designed to maximize opportunities for surveillance to learn, work, and socialize. This is worrisome to me for two main reasons: the violation of privacy and the normalization of a surveillance state. It is a violation of privacy, to have our actions tracked. It also gets us used to being watched, which is dangerous as we look towards the future.

Rebellion

We spend a lot of time focusing on the epic side of free software and user freedom: joys come from providing encrypted communication options to journalists and political dissidents; losses are when IoT devices are used to victimize and abuse.

I think a lot about the little ways technology interacts with our lives, the threats to or successes for user freedom we encounter in regular situations that anyone can find themselves able to understand: sexting with a secure app, sharing  DRM-free piece of media, or having your communications listened to by a “home assistant.”

When I was writing a talk about ethics and IoT, I was looking for these small examples of the threats posed by smart doorbells. False arrests and racial profiling, deals with law enforcement to monitor neighborhoods, the digital panopticon — these are big deals. I remembered something I read about kids giving their neighbor a pair of slippers for Christmas. This sort of anonymous gift giving becomes impossible when your front door is constantly being monitored. People laughed when I shared this idea with them — that we’re really losing something by giving up the opportunity to anonymously leave presents.

We are also giving up what my roommate calls “benign acts of rebellion.” From one perspective, making it harder for teenagers to sneak out at night is a good thing. Keeping better tabs on your kids and where they are is a safety issue. Being able to monitor what they do on their computer can prevent descent into objectively bad communities and behavior patterns, but it can also prevent someone from participating in the cultural coming of age narratives that help define who we are as a society and give us points of connection across generations.

People sneak out. People go places their parents don’t want them to. People stay up late at night reading or playing video games. People explore their sexuality by looking at porn when they’re underage. People do things their parents don’t want them to, and these are things their parents are increasingly able to prevent them from doing using technology.

I met someone at a conference who was talking about potentially installing a camera into the bedroom of their pubescent child — the same kind designed to allow parents to monitor their babies at night — because their child was playing video games when they “should be sleeping.”

This appalled me, but one of the things that really struck me was how casually they said it. Technology made it not a big deal. They already had one in their baby’s room, putting another in seemed simple.

I would happily argue all the epic points that come out of this: creating a surveillance state, normalizing the reality of being monitored, controlling behavior and creating a docile population. These are real threats, but also, seriously, poor sleep hygiene is just a thing teenagers do and it’s okay.

These benign acts of rebellion — staying up later than we’re told to, chatting with our friends when we’re not “supposed to” — are not just important points of cultural connection, but also just important for our own individual development. Making mistakes, doing dumb things, acting the fool, and learning from all of this is important in the process of defining ourselves. Technology should not be used to hinder our personal growth, especially when it offers to many opportunities for us to better explore who we are, or makes it safer for us to continue to rebel in the myriad ways we always have. Rebellion is important to our narratives — it’s certainly integral to mine. I hope that people younger than me don’t lose that because of the fear others hold.