9 April 2021 – by Andrew Dolan

I had the opportunity this morning to listen to a healthy debate on the question of so-called ‘Covid Passports’.  At one end, you had a commentator urging the introduction of such a tool:  if the requirement to carry personal data concerning your current health status not only ensured access to public spaces but also helped society avoid damaging ‘lock-downs’, then this was a price worth paying, he argued.  At the other end of the spectrum, you had an individual worried about the restriction of liberties such measures incurred and who raised questions as to how such personal data would be used, especially in the sense of future social surveillance and control.

Interestingly enough, both commentators agreed that there needed to be a public debate on this issue.  The determination of such a public health direction would reflect a key facet of modern public policy and by definition, would be a reflection on public ethics and morality.

I would contend that the public debate should be much more multi-faceted than merely pandemic response but provide an insight into how algorithm-led policies might have the potential for significantly altering traditional concepts such as privacy and freedom to individual control and choice.  In essence, the bio security state is not far off the mark.

Obviously any state apparatus managing a pandemic can only make policy and take policy decisions based on knowledge or at the very least, relevant information.  Since the onset of Covid-19, most European governments have amplified their collection and processing of ‘appropriate’ data.  This task has been made much easier through the explosion of public health ‘apps’ linked to ‘test and trace’ systems.  Yet less well discussed is how the data is used in a public health setting – not only in terms of the efficacy of pandemic surveillance but in wider uses such as pandemic modeling or behavioral studies.  

Concerned commentators who have reservations about the potential misuse of personal data seek to draw parallels with Chinese models of bio security, some of which seems to be linked to other forms of state control and surveillance.  Such systems also value certain forms of data, which can analyze behavioral traits, rewarding what is seen as exemplary behavior and penalizing so-called delinquency.

Of course, this cursory and superficial overview cannot really do justice to a range of ‘libertarian’ concerns that so vex many people.  Yet is it unreasonable to examine such a development – not only in terms of new or ‘extraordinary’ measures in extraordinary times but in relation to the increased attractiveness of developing new algorithms, which supports the various national public health campaigns but which are rarely scrutinized in such a way as to evaluate their longer-term impact?

I for one, can see a number of problems being stored up through the ever increasing reliance – some may say dependency – of individually harvested data sets to sustain some very untraditional forms of public control and behavioral stimulus.

One obvious concern is the lack of public consultation on this process.  No one is asking me if the transferal of very personal medical history is an acceptable way of keeping society healthy and that its potential use in other non-critical functions authorized by the state is an acceptable by-product.  How much surveillance is enough?

I also don’t see evidence of a public debate on how increased surveillance and profiling – with the attendant risks of bias and error that inevitably brings – makes pandemic management any easier.  What I think I might see, however, is a society that is unable to return to the status quo ante as we have voluntarily accepted further state intrusion into our lives in return for a new version of Hobbes social contract.

Yet think further out on the horizon and ask yourself if such public health data, augmented perhaps by other data sets, that reflects future cost effectiveness savings for government, might be used to assess your suitability to receive public health-supplied medication in a future pandemic.  Can we be confident that those individuals who wish to preserve some form of ‘individuality’ and who oppose such bio security state identity cards will not be disadvantaged in the future?

Finally, one does not need to conjure up dystopian futures to be concerned by what the future might hold in terms of public health policy responses, where pandemics – naturally occurring, accidental or deliberate – become a regular feature of life. Yet the development of new coping mechanisms based on ever increasing uses of artificial intelligence, both algorithms and network centric technologies, surely must give us pause for thought.

If a bio security state cannot be avoided, how should we best evaluate the range of policy options, which might have to be taken?  Perhaps one such option is to begin to further develop current artificial intelligence and public policy discourse in the field of public health to examine our futures.  A number of very fine academic institutes already look at such issues in terms of society and existential risk.  However, an obvious drawback here is the lack of interaction with the wider general public and a public that really doesn’t appreciate the wider implications of artificial intelligence.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that being impacted by a pandemic, now, or in the future, is likely to be unavoidable.  Arguably, not living in a bio security state is also unlikely.  Do we really appreciate what the implications of this might be and what kind of lives we will lead in the future, especially if surveillance and control becomes the norm, restrictions on liberties become passé and future employment is destabilized through the increasing exploitation of artificial intelligence in the work place?

Maybe Hungary can establish a trend by looking at this now and not waiting until policy options are irreversible.