Covid-19 must not let Big Brother in through back door

  • November 9, 2020
  • Steve Rogerson

Technologies, such as track and trace apps, used to halt the spread of Covid-19 have to be examined and regulated before they are rolled out for wider adoption, to ensure they do not normalise a Big-Brother-like society, according to research from the UK’s Durham University Business School.

While the study acknowledges the public health benefits of these technologies, the researchers state we must be wary of what technology is rolled out by governments and critically cross-examine these.

Conducted by Jeremy Aroles, assistant professor in organisation studies at Durham University Business School, alongside Aurélie Leclercq-Vandelannoitte, professor of management of information systems at IÉSEG School of Management, this research draws from the concept of societies of control, developed by the French philosopher Giles Deleuze, to analyse the technologies being used to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Aroles said: “Presented as ways to curb the immediate progression of the pandemic and improve safety, the acceptance and use of these technologies has become the new normal for many of us, therefore it is important that these systems of control are heavily vetted and cross-examined before being rolled out to the wider public.”

The researchers make three points regarding the development and use of Covid-19-related technologies.

First, the public should question the locus of collective responsibility. Increasingly complex systems of control and surveillance have been fuelled by people’s reliance on technology, which, the researchers say, has blurred understanding of the boundary between good and bad or right and wrong.

Secondly, more must be done to raise people’s awareness of how digital technologies work, and the risks of adopting them across society. People are often, rightly, concerned over their privacy and the sharing of their data. It is therefore crucial these technologies are transparent and actively help individuals understand the ramifications of the control systems to which they’re opting in.

Thirdly, given that Covid-19 tracking technologies are developed by companies for the benefit of governments, it is vital that greater regulation of the partnerships between state authorities and companies is adopted. Alongside this, it is also important that counter-powers such as journalists and the public hold these partnerships to account, to ensure they do not violate the privacy of citizens for financial gain.

The researchers say it is important the Covid-19 pandemic is not used as an opportunity to enforce a society of control and to normalise greater surveillance. They suggest that researchers or bodies specialising in the management of information systems should be brought in to supervise the developments of digitally enabled control systems, such as Covid-19 apps, and not abandon them to companies that could violate the privacy of citizens.