A panic about contact tracing in Minnesota, United States, spread after Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington said that they were “contact tracing” protestors there.
“As we’ve begun making arrests, we have begun analysing the data of who we have arrested and begun actually doing what we think is almost pretty similar to our Covid [strategy]. It’s contact tracing.”
Harrington’s press office later clarified that this did not mean they were using data from the public health contact tracing system to identify protestors, and that he had used the term “as a metaphor”. Nonetheless, it heightened concerns that the technology could be used in this way by authorities. Officials admitted that they don’t have any laws restricting the use of the contact tracing system solely to public health purposes, as the system is “too new” to have such legislative restrictions “attached to it”.
A lack of trust in the contact tracing and testing systems being introduced by governments will fatally undermine them before they have even begun. This is the fundamental contraction of a data intensive state that is both required for public health efforts but is also a powerful repressive apparatus. The data age provides infinite possibilities for real-time information and co-ordination, but in the wrong hands it is also the most powerful technological tool for surveillance and coercion ever known. We know already from the Snowden files that the US National Security Agency has worked with platform-data giants and other secret service agencies (including in the UK) to gather data on hundreds of millions of people across the world, without their permission. So a lack of trust in these institutions is not paranoia, it is an understandable response based on what we know about how they operate.
Naomi Klein has written about the emergence of a Covid-19 ‘Screen New Deal’, where the corporate-state nexus is already adapting to the new pandemic world by becoming ever more integrated around data, to re-shape the nature of our cities and our working lives. Key to this is an embrace of centralised outsourcing on a scale not previously seen, something the UK Governmenthas been quick to embrace in its response to the pandemic, transferring NHS duties to the private sector.
David McCoy, professor of global public health at Queen Mary University of London, has written that this approach has been applied to England’s contact tracing and testing system, and it is already a disaster. Baroness Dido Harding has admitted the system will not be fully operational until the end of June. A plethora of outsourced contracts, including to Randox, Deloitte, Serco, G4S and Sodexo, have not been made public, but we already know what some of the problems look like: Serco has set-up a centralised call centre to handle contact tracing communication with staff paid £8.72 an hour, totally at odds with localised systems of expert contact tracers in Germany and South Korea, two of the most successful examples of this system.
“Viewing contact tracers as customer service call handlers may be a good business model for Serco, but I would like to know if a single public health specialist in this country thinks this was a good idea,” McCoy writes.
The centralised approach doesn’t work because “contact tracing is fundamentally a behavioural intervention”; the data needs to be combined with human know-how and contact at the local level. This is an important lesson for the data age as a whole: the use of human-beings with skills to analyse and empathise may not be necessary for corporate platforms seeking to cut costs to a minimum, but it is necessary if you want data-led approaches to actually work effectively on the ground as ultimately they exist (or should exist) to meet the needs of humans. That’s just one reason why we should worry about our data being put into the hands of Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerburg.
Thankfully, it appears as if Scotland’s system does avoid most of the pit-falls of England’s. The software is being delivered through an NHS system, there aresome privacy safeguards and there is a localised aspect to it. There still appears to be a shortage of contact tracers hired on the ground though, but at the moment the evidence suggests Scotland’s system is likely to lead to better outcomes than England’s.
This should be built on going forward: privatisation and outsourcing undermines the capacities of the state, and lack of transparency in data undermines citizens trust in the state. Open-source data based on public ownership that is decentralised and democratic is the route to success for countries navigating the data age.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
- A letters section
- Upcoming events for activists
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.