Gayathri Vaidyanathan: Remember these news headlines from earlier this year?
ACT: straight to our top focus from the National Capital — Delhi’s Nizamuddin area has emerged as the major hotbed for coronavirus outbreak. Parts of the area have been sealed after a spurt in positive cases among the followers of Tablighi Jamaat, the religious body that had hosted a religious congregation this month.
GV: And here’s one of India’s top journalists
ACT – Arnab Goswami
Mary-Rose Abraham: These news reports are troubling — because though the event could be termed a “super spreader”, the spin some news media put on it strengthened already existing borders between people. And if you’ve listened in Episode 1, pandemics and borders, you may have found an eerie repeat of history from colonial times — when Hindu and Muslim pilgrims were blamed for carrying disease into Europe.
GV: We’ll discuss today the branch of science that underpins such headlines — epidemiology — which has a long history with state, corporations, and with modern day surveillance.
MRA: Epidemiologists are scientists whose job it is to capture, analyze and find patterns in data. They were ones who first identified the Nizamuddin cluster and labeled it a super spreader.
GV: And very closely linked to epidemiology — in fact its very soul — is surveillance — the hoovering up of raw data about people. And these days, it’s not only governments that are capturing the raw data about us, it’s also tech companies through “public private partnerships” in public health. We’ll speak with Martin French, a sociologist and surveillance expert at the University of Concordia in Montreal.
Martin French: We’re already sort of seeing the normalization of a lot of kinds of surveillance. That, you know, prior to COVID-19 would have been unthinkable.
MF: this idea that a person is a quote unquote Super spreader … I think that in a very specialized setting where epidemiologists are trying to work rapidly to identify cases and to interrupt what they call the chain of infection, you know, this concept probably has some utility. But when it gets kind of taken up by mass media to, you know, ostracize and stigmatize people, I think that’s a very worrisome
GV: This is Chatroom number 6 on Scrolls & Leaves. Thanks for being here Dr. French!
MF: Sure thing. So thanks again for having me on on the on the podcast.
MRA: – So, for our listeners, I just wanna give a quick primer — epidemiology is the study of disease in a population. So, epidemiologists use data to figure out things like how common a disease is in your community — and once they know that, they can deploy resources. For example, they may look at how many folks are smoking in a community, and then deploy anti-smoking campaigns to prevent disease. And they often work inside public health organizations
GV: So, Dr. French, can you tell us how public health and epidemiology are linked to surveillance?
Public health organizations hire epidemiologists to conduct epidemiology. And this brings me to the concept of surveillance because one of the key tools of epidemiology in a public health context is surveillance. Now, there are different definitions of surveillance and public health. But you know, one widely used description says that surveillance is the systematic and ongoing collection and correlation and analysis of data for public health purposes. And then the dissemination of this data. This this public health information, you know, to guide response and to guide action.
MRA: so, that’s how they link up….but what about the flip side? the differences between surveillance and epidemiology?
MF: So, I think that sometimes we might think of surveillance and epidemiology as synonymous terms. But often public health scholarship or public health practitioners will sort of draw a distinction between epidemiology and surveillance and they’ll say that, you know, epidemiology is really kind of like on the research side of things, trying to answer research questions, whereas surveillance is something that is much more…. it doesn’t have, you know, research necessarily as a goal, it just has kind of understanding a condition and a population as a goal. So it’s… you know, whereas a research study might be time delimited surveillance tends to be, you know, ongoing systematic and so on.
Often with research studies, there’s a lot more oversight. You know, speaking as an academic, when I want to conduct research with human participants, I have to kind of go through an ethics review process. And surveillance tends to be exempted from that.
And so I think that’s a kind of an, you know, an interesting distinction sometimes. under the rubric of surveillance, the process maybe is subject to less regulatory controls, it can move and adapt more quickly. But that has also ethical implications as well, right? There may be things that people are doing under the name of surveillance that we wouldn’t necessarily view as ethical. And then there’s the whole matter of private sector companies doing surveillance, which, you know, even if they’re doing research, they’re not kind of subject to the same sort of scrutiny that, let’s say something like academic research would be subject to.
GV: So let’s get into private sector surveillance during the pandemic. Google and Apple have released their own contact tracing apps. And in India, the government released the Aarogya Setu app, which was made together with the private sector — it’s unclear what the exact conditions of the partnership are, or even who really made it and to what extent they are involved. So — can you tell us how these apps work?
MF: Yeah, so I’ll try to do that. I’m not a computer scientist. So, you know, I, I have relied on computer scientists to explain this to me. But it’s, it’s difficult, first of all, to understand, and it’s not transparent. So I think it’s, it’s a hard question to answer.we can think about contact tracing apps as having two separate components. So there’s a client. So that’s the, the application sort of like, on your phone basically. And so the application is going to basically track when you’re when your mobile device comes into contact with the Bluetooth signals of other mobile devices. So that’s basically how it works. It’s a proximity sensor.
And so the Bluetooth signals are, depending on the app, probably encrypted and stored locally on your device. But what these computer scientists Leaf and Farrell observed is that basically, if you’re going to use the app, you have to have, you have to have it switched on, and you have to have Google Play Services switched on. Right. And so if you have that service switched on, one of the things that Google Play Services is doing is, it’s connecting to Google servers roughly every 20 minutes. And so Leaf And Farrell noted that these connections necessarily disclose the handset IP to Google and also a proxy for people’s location. And they also contain persistent identifiers that allow requests from the same device to be linked together. So taking all of these data points together, it might not be sending kind of like people’s like individual Bluetooth signals, but it’s gathering a lot of other types of data that when put together, can allow a fine grained tracking of this device over time.
So I just want to make that point, to say that these companies are also responding to critiques and questions over privacy concerns. So it’s a moving target as well, which, which is good that they’re responding to criticisms, but also difficult in the sense that it makes it even more challenging to figure out what’s going on.
GV: So, in your email to me, you mentioned the danger of this — if you have a contact tracing app on your android phone, and you attend — say — an anti-government protest with your phone in your pocket …Google could find out your location. And it’s very likely — allowed under law in fact in India — for law enforcement – the police – to access this data. So, we can see how contact tracing can intersect with other forms of surveillance that can lead to greater oppression…
MRA: So, it sounds like data is definitely being collected. I saw your recent commentary on this, which is linked on our website…. you say that contact tracing apps may be a way for corporate interests to further their economic interests. And you mention the work of Harvard prof Shoshana Zuboff and her concept of “surveillance capitalism”. Could you tell us what this is and how contact tracing fits in?
MF: Zuboff argues that, as users of this service, we’re part of the company’s value proposition. So, some people have said that, as users of, say, a Google service, or Facebook service, we become commodities and, you know, we become packaged and sold to companies, for their capacity to create intelligence about about us and our behaviors and so on. And Zuboff actually, pushes argument a bit further, even she says we don’t even rise to the level of commodities, In fact,
MRA: So how can companies like Google benefit from a contact tracing app?
Think about an older owner of a smartphone, for example, maybe that user is not going on to the smartphone every day to check their Facebook accounts. Maybe they are, but you know, maybe not. Right? They might not be as active on social media, Twitter, and so on. But now we have this contact tracing app that. They’re in an at risk group, and they’re being encouraged to use. And so in one sense, the application might be driving users to their, their smartphone devices with more frequency, and in new ways than they would otherwise have used the device. So it’s, it’s creating what scholars like Natasha Schull, for example, the anthropologist at New York University has called you know, this, this kind of engagement with devices time on device. Think about how Facebook evaluates its its worth, like when they make reports to their investors right there, they talk about DAU- daily active users. So in one sense, the move to this app might have just created a lot more daily active users, right for these, for these technologies.
at the level of the, at the level of the application, and people’s use of the application. You know, they, they cement, I think, in some significant ways, to the extent that people are using it, they just kind of, like, make this technology more embedded, even more embedded in people’s everyday lives than it already is.
GV: so it sounds like it might result in behavior change — hook people people onto the their phones, and then maybe they’ll become smartphone users. So the contact tracing app is like a gateway drug if you will…
That’s, you know, from my perspective, that is one of the ways that they that these companies can cement their power. So they think about think about, and maybe the best way to understand this here is with the idea of a platform. So in North America, for example, the company, Uber really disrupted local taxi industries, I think that one of the ways in which these companies just by getting more and more users are increasing their power is by sort of that amplifier effect that is that that is associated with the growth of networks. So Uber might not be such a powerful force if it was kind of limited to one city, but because it’s across cities and across countries, it can really kind of come in and disrupt local industries, Airbnb, same thing, if it was just a kind of like an org, an organization in a city, renting out rooms, it wouldn’t be really a threat to the hotel industry. Right? this way of doing surveillance mediated through the companies that build the applications, the companies that control the handheld devices, so the platforms, and the companies that provide the the network infrastructure, so telecommunications companies, all of those organizations, their their power, I think is is cemented, further cemented, amplified, potentially, by these types of directions, that governments have been taking in the pandemic response, think about all of the stuff that we’re doing virtually now and remotely, right. So these I think these companies have, are kind of coming into a power that maybe they haven’t had ever before.
GV: And you argue in your article that this fits into this model of disaster capitalism as proposed by Naomi Klein. Can you tell us about that theory?
This is really an idea that has been developed by the amazing thinker and writer, and journalist, Naomi Klein. So her book, The Shock Doctrine, really talked about the way that crises are leveraged by powerful corporate interests, to amplitude to remake to remake social systems, and then to amplify their power.
It’s a good frame of reference for making sense of contact tracing and the contemporary moment. And so, when Klein defines disaster capitalism, she she talks about it as an orchestrated raid on the public sphere, in the wake of catastrophic events. And she was talking about, you know, the appropriation, while the destruction of Iraq in the Gulf War, and, you know, the, the capitalist appropriation of the recovery. And there are lots of other examples that she has talked about in her own work. I’m thinking about Hurricane Katrina, for example. And the way that the city of New Orleans was destroyed by the hurricane, and then the way that private sector solutions were presented as ways to rebuild so yeah, this is one of the
GV: and also the Indian ocean tsunami, I believe and how corporations exerted control over the coastlines following the destruction
Yes, absolutely, absolutely. Thank you for that. And so these are, these are moments of crises and disaster where Klein says publics are scrambling, right? We’re we’re in shock, and we’re very receptive to whatever solution is going to allow us to get past the crisis. And so she wants to draw our attention to the way that powerful corporate actors often not not just take advantage of those situations but actually create the conditions, right? for those situations to become crises. So here the argument is, f there was a more equitable distribution of wealth, if we had corporate taxes at the level that they used to be our public sector capacities might not be so fragile right now.
GV: so are you seeing this disaster capitalism at play during the pandemic?
Well, I think so I think with the example that we’ve been sort of talking about with the corporate contact tracing apps, yes, I think this, this fits very well with that description. You know, we we have public health systems that had capacities eroded. Governments for whatever reason, can’t sort of see or don’t want to see the, the, you know, the role that they play in making communities
MRA: I’d like to make a point here for our listeners that in India, investments in public health are dismally law for decades — I believe less than 2% of GDP since 2009. Last year, it was only 1% of GDP… It’s closer to 10% of GDP in Canada and the US in comparison…so the conditions before the pandemic had already been created…
MRA: so let’s talk impacts of surveillance… I saw in your article that you’re worried about an increase in bias?
MF: so Canada and the United States share a border. And there’s this idea that you know, goods and people can move fairly freely across this border. But for a number of years up until the Obama administration changed the legislation, it was pretty difficult for someone, for example, living with an HIV diagnosis to freely Come in, come and go. And so there were there was a kind of innocence immunity passport already in play here. When we think about people who were already living with a diagnosis that has been a very stigmatized diagnosis historically, so I think you know, these these kinds of examples are worth keeping in mind as well. So people who have been diagnosed with infectious conditions already have kind of like limited mobility.
Q – What are some of other problematic results of surveillance — or more broadly speaking, epidemiology? For example, when Indians use Aarogya Setu, I feel like we also use it to watch others — to see who else has the disease, which strengths borders between people….
Maybe this is most evident in the context of people’s everyday lives when we’re thinking about what has been, you know, badly called social distancing to You know, quote unquote flatten the curve.
this idea of We’ve all sort of
And I think that epidemiologically we can see that this this regime of physical distancing, has has worked, you know, in terms of slowing the number of cases of COVID-19 disease in various communities. So that is positive, but socially, it has had perhaps a number of unintended consequences. For instance, I think it has thickened already existing borders between people and communities. We’ve had numerous reports in Canada of racist reactions targeted at Chinese Canadians, or people who quote unquote, look Asian, right. And these types of interpersonal and I would say inter-communal borders are particularly worrying.
They are a particularly worrying outcome of the narrative of COVID-19 disease that has been told using surveillance data and epidemiological language, right, this idea of the novel Coronavirus as the Wuhan virus or the Chinese virus, you know, mobilized by by political leaders for example, and very, very troubling ways. So, you know, there’s a sense in which disease surveillance can interlock with and potentially exacerbate already existing borders that divide our society’s already existing fissures in our societies.
And we want to think I, I think very carefully and very critically about this possibility. And, you know, even I would say seasoned journalists who have long worked on the sort of health, health media beats sometimes fall prey to the uptake of language that is not necessarily helpful for describing infectious disease conditions in populations.
you know, I think that the uptake, I suppose, like I suppose, in a very specialized setting, you know, in a very kind of close, for example, setting where epidemiologists are, you know, trying to work rapidly to identify cases and to interrupt what they call the chain of infection. You know, this concept This concept probably has some utility. But when it gets kind of taken up by mass media to, you know, ostracize, ostracized and stigmatized people, I think that’s a very worrisome that’s a thing that propagates fear, fear of one another and fear of, I suppose, you know, a kind of xenophobia, if you like, that really undermines the conditions of social solidarity, which in my view are going to be ultimately necessary if we’re to have any hope of coming out of the current crisis in a better position than, you know, then we than we are now.
GV: You were listening to Martin French on Chatroom on Scrolls & Leaves. If you want to learn more about the topics we discussed today, you can find some links on our website, www.scrollsandleaves.com/chatroom6. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks for another Chatroom. See you then!