To Pre-Empt Future Pandemics, Governments Should Invest in the Welfare State, Not Private Surveillance
By Elettra Bietti and Jennifer Cobbe
On Friday 13 March, Trump announced that Google would create a website to help Americans navigate COVID-19. The statement was corrected just hours later: far from working with the US government on a nationwide site, Verily, a subsidiary of Google’s parent Alphabet, had been building a small trial website to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area only. Still, Trump’s announcement shows that large technology companies like Google are and will be playing a significant role in containing and fighting the pandemic.
This is a difficult, frightening moment. How we tackle the COVID-19 pandemic will affect us for decades to come. As we come to terms with our anxieties, we must not let panic cloud the path to a better future. Instead of unreflectively welcoming private companies into our lives, we should seize this moment to reflect on the future of our increasingly digital democracies, of our hollowed-out social security systems, and of our fragmented global economy. If we don’t, we risk the erosion of democratic values and the normalization of surveillance to a point of no return.
A global pandemic requires governments to play a greater role than usual in providing healthcare, saving lives, and protecting us all from this disease. What we are seeing instead, in the United States and elsewhere, are hollowed-out governments and politicians more concerned about privatizing public functions than about enhancing their governance capabilities. Many governments are now devolving public power and delegating essential services to privately managed infrastructures such as Amazon or Google.
Even before COVID-19, many were concerned about Google’s hungry appetite for health data. The project Baseline site is still only able to direct users to a handful of regional testing facilities, but Google has promised to expand its reach. Once functional, the site will provide Google with access to a plethora of health-related data. Clearview and Palantir, are also developing surveillance tools for the US government and possibly other countries. These tools will likely involve widespread use of facial recognition technologies and sophisticated terrorism monitoring tools to control the spread of coronavirus. Similar moves can be seen in the UK, Italy, and elsewhere.
Many large companies are benefiting from this crisis to advance even more aggressively into spaces more traditionally left to government, such as public roads or parks, or spaces left to private individuals, such as the home. They will increasingly control and leverage information about our physical health and mental wellbeing and may become invaluable actors in securing community health, safety, and policing. This expansion will give private companies even more control over sensitive personal information, information that will be hoarded for private profit, away from public oversight. Private infrastructures will also be further entrenched, becoming essential to governing public life, securing private spaces, and combating future health and economic crises.
Harvard Business School Professor Shoshana Zuboff has recently argued that we now live in an age of “surveillance capitalism,” when our behavior and characteristics are datafied, controlled at unprecedented scale and speed, increasingly denying us the ability to control our digital and physical lives. Yet the state relying on private companies to perform even its core functions is nothing new. Recent decades have seen a strong trend towards contracting out of government services, privatization, and public-private partnerships. The increasing privatization of public functions is fueled by neoliberal policies that see individuals as consumers of privatized public goods rather than as engaged citizens.
Big tech companies are monopolizing a large part of our production systems. They are deploying pervasive surveillance capabilities at scale. But also — and most importantly — they are legitimating the retraction of democratic governments from their essential public functions. While the dystopian deployment of surveillance drones in China to shepherd people back into quarantine seems very far from us in the West, the advance of big tech companies’ role during this pandemic is bringing into focus the fact that we are dangerously close to the Chinese model of pervasive tech-enabled surveillance and lockdowns.
COVID-19 provides a rare opportunity to change our societies and political systems for the better: expanding equal access to healthcare, food, education, and safety, deepening our understanding of the interconnections and fragmentations created by globalization, enhancing our ability to sustain ourselves, each other and the planet. Let’s not let the opportunistic actions of a few private companies and of irresponsible government policies take over our democratic futures.
Elettra Bietti is a Doctoral Candidate at Harvard Law School, a Kennedy Scholar, and an Affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
Jennifer Cobbe is a Research Associate and Affiliated Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Technology at the University of Cambridge.