Can Europe Make It?

How data-mining companies are set to gain from the COVID-19 pandemic

Their business model, challenged by numerous activists and analysts, is likely to gain further public acceptance, to the detriment of democracy.

Ivan Manokha
31 March 2020
Brittany Kaiser, former Director of Business Development at Cambridge Analytica, sporting a new message to a conference in Munich, Bavaria. January 20, 2020.
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Lino Mirgeler/PA. All rights reserved.

The current outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic may be seen as a litmus test for different institutions of contemporary society – the viability of production structures based on global value chains, the solidity of health systems built (or, rather, dismantled) in the period of neoliberalism, and, more generally, the ability of the ‘nightwatchman’ neoliberal state to ensure the security and survival of the population.

One of the things that the Covid-19 outbreak is increasingly revealing is how pervasive the surveillance mechanisms, developed in the last decade or so, have become. In an effort to contain the spread of the virus, governments all over the world are adopting various surveillance and monitoring technologies: tracking those who have been tested positive and informing the public about their movements with ‘travel logs’ (as, for example, in South Korea); monitoring the movements of individuals to ensure their compliance with the policies of quarantine or confinement (as, for instance, in China, Israel and Singapore, as well as in Italy, Germany and Austria); or using such technologies to optimize the use of resources in hospitals (as in the UK).

As has always been the case with modern surveillance – and with technology more generally, which, as Melvin Kranzberg famously observed, “is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral” – it may produce positive and socially beneficial outcomes, and in the current context the adoption of such measures seems justified. However, digital surveillance has always carried with a risk of doing more harm than good – to undermine various individual rights (privacy, freedom of speech, labour rights, freedom from gender or racial discrimination, etc.) and to threaten the existence of democratic institutions and politics.

As Edward Snowden and number of other analysts have warned, what needs to be closely watched is whether or not the surveillance measures deployed to deal with the virus will not be kept in place by public authorities after the pandemic is over.

“Technology is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral”

Data-mining corporations

Another problematic nature of these measures seems to be the role of data-mining corporations in helping governments build the surveillance devices to contain the pandemic. The examples of new partnerships springing up between the authorities and tech companies abound: the National Health Service is now using the services of Palantir, Microsoft and Amazon to track medical staff and resources to coordinate the UK’s coronavirus response; Palantir is helping the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention model the virus outbreak and many other companies that analyse social-media data work with this agency as well as the National Institutes of Health; more recently, as the Wall Street Journal reported, a task force of data-mining start-ups (such as Clearview A.I.) and tech giants (Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon) has been set up and is currently working with the White House to develop a range of tracking and surveillance technologies – everything from geolocation tracking of people through their phones to facial-recognition systems that can analyze photos to determine who might have come into contact with individuals who later tested positive for the virus.

It is likely that data-mining and surveillance companies will sign lucrative contracts with governments in numerous western countries to use surveillance technologies to contain the spread of the pandemic.

This, however, seems to be a rather minor gain compared to another benefit that these tech companies are poised to obtain: a gain in legitimacy, in the further normalization of their existence and their operation based on the gathering and monetization of people’s data. This potential outcome of the pandemic for these companies would significantly outstrip any immediate financial gains that they could obtain from partnering with public authorities in the period of the pandemic.

Indeed, these companies, especially following the Snowden revelations in 2013, and later different scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica data leak in 2018, or the revelations of user privacy violations by using deceptive disclosures and settings by Facebook in 2019 (that cost the social media platform $5 billion in fines), have been under attack from civil society activists, media and academics.

Palantir, for example, has been under fire for its partnership with ICE and its involvement and its role in arrests of the parents of illegal migrant children, as well as for its alleged cooperation with Cambridge Analytica; Clearview A. I., a facial-recognition start-up, recently sparked controversy over its technology capable of scanning photos of individuals all over the Internet that the start-up is has been selling to police departments; the tech giants such as Facebook or Alphabet have been regular targets of various social forces for their (overt and covert) practices all aimed at deepening and broadening the mining of data of individuals.

These tech companies are poised to obtain a gain in legitimacy, in the further normalization of their existence and their operation based on the gathering and monetization of people’s data.

It seems that these data-mining tech companies will come out of the current crisis not just with an improved image, especially if their involvement in the containment of the Covid-19 pandemic does produce tangible results. More importantly, their status as legitimate partners of governments in the period of one of the major health crises that humanity has seen is likely to contribute to the general acceptance and normalization of their existence. In other words, their business model, ultimately based on constant privacy invasions and the monetization of the data obtained, which has been challenged by numerous activists and analysts, is likely to get further naturalized and objectified.

As has already been noted, the potential harmful effects for the society of such modus operandi are significant: for a successful exercise of different political and civil rights (the right to vote, the right to organise, to form assemblies and political parties, the right to free speech, etc.) privacy is an absolute pre-condition.

By developing a business model that not only undermines privacy, but is tailored to invade privacy in ever more nuanced and sophisticated ways – for on this depends the ability of data-mining companies to earn their large profits – these tech companies, slowly but surely, are undermining the possibility of democratic politics. Policy makers who, in these hard times, are desperate to find the means to contain the virus, should be aware of this fact when they sign partnerships with tech companies – especially, when the crisis is over.

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