The Data and Privacy Conundrum During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Big Data, Privacy, and Surveillance Capitalism

We currently find ourselves in a time in which we have witnessed a deep change in the way people communicate, work and relate with the world. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, many people have to blend their professional lives with their personal lives, bringing their work home. Companies have built and developed systems to further improve the computer mediation of their normal operations, universities and other higher education institutions have found (and are still trying to find) new ways to provide classes to their students, and governments are still scrambling to find ways to put their school systems and other essential operations online.

We have been going through a major shift in the way people live. With more people using the internet every day since many find their lives being increasingly mediated through an internet connection. This gives rise to the issue of data privacy. There are concerns about web conferencing software and how secure it really is, there is more data being made available online, and there are many other dynamics at play that may only be identifiable in hindsight. These are times that demand an increased media awareness and literacy that many people may not possess. Discussions about big data and data selling giants become more prominent.

In her article Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization (2015), Shoshana Zuboff (you may know her from her frequent media appearances and her brilliant academic work) lays the groundwork on a few concepts that prove to be relevant when trying to understand and interpret privacy and data collection problems. First, there is the concept of Big Data, which Zuboff describes as being a large collection of data that are converted through computer mediation in order to reveal patterns, connections and trends. This means that, in this view, Big Data is a foundation for surveillance capitalism, which allows entities and people to make money and control the market by predicting and modifying human behaviour (Zuboff, 2015, pp. 75).

Data companies, like Google, “extract” data from their users and sell them to the highest bidder, either for marketing and advertising purposes, for research, or even for governmental use (Zuboff, 2015). Zuboff uses the term Big Other to refer to the networked regime that “records, modifies and commodifies everyday experience […] with a view to establish new pathways to monetization and profit” (Zuboff, 2015, pp. 81). In the world of the Big Other, there is no longer a contract like in traditional capitalism, leading data companies have the market monopoly, large pockets, few employees and their clients are other companies. Individuals become a sort of prima materia from which the companies extract data.

If in her 2015 essay, Zuboff already recognised the danger of the world of the Big Other, in her January 2020 article for the New York times (Zuboff, 2020) she points to the lack of regulation in the world of data and how it threatens and undermines human agency.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft are leaders in surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2020) and we have seen the nefarious consequences of the lack of regulation of these entities. A great example of this was the Cambridge Analytica scandal: data was harvested from millions of Facebook users without their consent and used for political advertising (Wong, 2019). Now that the usage of conferencing technologies and social networks is on the rise, concerns continue to arise about data privacy and harvesting and user consent (St. John, 2020). Not only do these technologies seem to be compromised but there are also several governmental proposals to use Big Data as a method to map and prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, with both voluntary and compulsory approaches (Hao, 2020; Brandom, R., Robertson, A., 2020) (You can read more about this in this article). Users may be faced with the choice between their health or their privacy or, in cases like China, there is not even the option of choice.

We can look at Big Data as a double-edged sword: it can help contain and manage the spread of the Covid-19 virus, leading to higher survival rates, but we should also heed the warnings of scholars like Yuval Noah Harari (2020) about the dangers of the normalisation of mass surveillance. The battle for privacy and transparency from data companies has been around for a few years now and we are at risk to give them the keys to everyone’s lives in order to potentiate survival to a pandemic.

Could this be a new manifestation of slavery in which we need to sell our freedom in order to keep our health? Or will there finally be some kind of regulatory entity that will police the data treatment and how they are used? Are we unknowingly entering a new form of governance in which these companies have the power to manipulate our emotions in such a way that our choices and agency are compromised? Many more questions could be raised about this topic, not only due to its intricacies but also because of the sheer amount of information that is hidden deep inside these companies. We may find ourselves fighting against a functionally invisible threat, and our governments may not have the necessary tools to even recognise this threat’s existence.

References

Brandom, R.; Robertson, A. (2020, April 10). Apple and Google are building a coronavirus tracking system into iOS and Android. [Web log post] in The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/10/21216484/google-apple-coronavirus-contract-tracing-bluetooth-location-tracking-data-app

Hao, K. (2020, April 9). How Facebook and Google are helping the CDC forecast coronavirus. [Web log post] in Technology Review. Retrieved from https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/04/09/998924/facebook-and-google-share-data-to-forecast-coronavirus/

Harari, Y.N. (2020, March 21/22). The World After Coronavirus. The Financial Times.

St. John, A. (2020, April 30). It’s Not Just Zoom. Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Webex Have Privacy Issues, Too. [Web log post] in Consumer Reports Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/video-conferencing-services/videoconferencing-privacy-issues-google-microsoft-webex/

Wong, J. C. (2019, March 18). The Cambridge Analytica scandal changed the world — but it didn’t change Facebook [Web log post] in The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/mar/17/the-cambridge-analytica-scandal-changed-the-world-but-it-didnt-change-facebook

Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of Information Technology, 30, pp. 75–89.

Zuboff, S. (2020, January 24). You Are Now Remotely Controlled in The New York Times, retrieved from: https://nyti.ms/2sXbT2d

Passionate reader and writer with a profound interest in history and literature. B.A. in Languages, Literature and Culture; current M.A. Communication student.

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