Edward Snowden warns 'bio-surveillance' may outlast coronavirus

Amid the panic of the COVID-19 pandemic, are we building the surveillance states of tomorrow?

Edward Snowden warns 'bio-surveillance' may outlast coronavirus
  • Edward Snowden is a former CIA contractor who exposed NSA mass surveillance programs.
  • In a recent interview, Snowden expressed concern over the ways in which governments are using technology to track the spread of the virus.
  • These new tracking measures may someday be repurposed to advance governments' mass surveillance programs, Snowden warned.


As governments turn to technology to help contain the spread of COVID-19, privacy advocates are expressing concern over how new bio-surveillance practices might stick around long after the pandemic ends.

Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who exposed NSA surveillance programs, recently spoke to Danish Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Henrik Moltke about surveillance in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

"When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky," Snowden said. "The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it."

Snowden is especially concerned about the long-term implications of strengthening the national surveillance infrastructure. Granted, the surveillance measures we may deploy today — say, using biometric facial recognition technology — might help to slow the transmission of COVID-19. What's more, these measures might not noticeably curtail our civil liberties, even if they stick around after the pandemic ends.

But the problem is that the surveillance measures we install today will probably still be here decades from now. Over time, they may creep their way into becoming the new normal (unless sunset clauses are enforced). Another possibility is that these new surveillance measures go unused — at least until an administration comes along that's not afraid to use them in an unprecedented way. By that point, the public may be helpless.

"You have no civil power remaining to resist it," Snowden said. "Because you cannot coordinate. You cannot gather in public, because the government instantly knows all of these people are around."

Giving the government access to biometrics could open up alarming new ways for governments to spy on citizens, Snowden said.

"They already know what you're looking at on the internet," he said. "They already know where your phone is moving. Now they know what your heart rate is, what your pulse is. What happens when they start to mix these and apply artificial intelligence to it?

Snowden offered an example: A man in the U.S. watches a YouTube video of a federal official giving a speech. The speech angers him. His pulse and heart-rate shoot up, and this biometric data gets recorded by his smartphone. The government, using algorithms that compare biometrics with online activity and other data, puts this man on a watch-list for people deemed to be potential terrorists or other undesirables.

​Coronavirus bio-surveillance around the globe

Since the pandemic began, Asia has seen the most noticeable uptick in surveillance measures.

In China, citizens are required to install a smartphone app that assigns them a color code — green, yellow or red — that represents health status. The exact methodology of the app remains unclear. But less ambiguous are the CCTV cameras that the government has installed above the apartment doors of infected citizens, to ensure they stay inside for a 14-day quarantine.

South Korea has done an exceptional job at containing the spread of COVID-19. One reason is the nation's aggressive use of smartphone tracking: The South Korean government has ordered everyone who tests positive for COVID-19 to install an app that alerts officials if they exit quarantine. Citizens also receive text messages about the movements of infected people, like: "A woman in her 60s has just tested positive [...] Click on the link for the places she visited before she was hospitalized," according to The Guardian.

According to a survey conducted in February by Seoul National University's Graduate School of Public Health, 78.5 percent of citizens said they would sacrifice privacy rights to help prevent a national epidemic.

The U.S. hasn't rolled out similar surveillance tools to help contain the virus, as of March 27. But companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon have been speaking with White House officials about how they might be able to model and help track the spread of the pandemic, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Masked-face Recognition Used To Help Contain Coronavirus Outbreak In Hangzhou

China News Service / Getty

Concerned about the potential ways Silicon Valley and the government might use technology to track the spread of COVID-19, the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently issued ethical guidelines for data collection during the pandemic:

  • Privacy intrusions must be necessary and proportionate. A program that collects, en masse, identifiable information about people must be scientifically justified and deemed necessary by public health experts for the purpose of containment. And that data processing must be proportionate to the need. For example, maintenance of 10 years of travel history of all people would not be proportionate to the need to contain a disease like COVID-19, which has a two-week incubation period.
  • Data collection based on science, not bias. Given the global scope of communicable diseases, there is historical precedent for improper government containment efforts driven by bias based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, and race—rather than facts about a particular individual's actual likelihood of contracting the virus, such as their travel history or contact with potentially infected people. Today, we must ensure that any automated data systems used to contain COVID-19 do not erroneously identify members of specific demographic groups as particularly susceptible to infection.
  • Expiration. As in other major emergencies in the past, there is a hazard that the data surveillance infrastructure we build to contain COVID-19 may long outlive the crisis it was intended to address. The government and its corporate cooperators must roll back any invasive programs created in the name of public health after crisis has been contained.
  • Transparency. Any government use of "big data" to track virus spread must be clearly and quickly explained to the public. This includes publication of detailed information about the information being gathered, the retention period for the information, the tools used to process that information, the ways these tools guide public health decisions, and whether these tools have had any positive or negative outcomes.
  • Due Process. If the government seeks to limit a person's rights based on this "big data" surveillance (for example, to quarantine them based on the system's conclusions about their relationships or travel), then the person must have the opportunity to timely and fairly challenge these conclusions and limits.

The 'coronavirus trilemma'

Still, it may be the case that stopping coronavirus requires us to temporarily sacrifice personal privacy, as Jeremy Cliff wrote for the New Statesman:

"So countries are faced with what one might call the "coronavirus trilemma". They can pick two of three things but cannot have them all: limit deaths, gradually lift lockdowns, or uphold cherished civil liberties. Not all countries are facing up to this reality – the US remains a notable laggard – but most will have to eventually. Those countries that have recognised the choices before them are picking the first two options at the cost of the third, bio-surveillance. It is a choice that has most clearly been made in east Asia. But it is coming to much of the rest of the world too – and will transform the role and reach of the state."

An artist's depiction of Lola.

Tom Björklund
Surprising Science
  • Researchers recently uncovered a piece of chewed-on birch pitch in an archaeological dig in Denmark.
  • Conducting a genetic analysis of the material left in the birch pitch offered a plethora of insights into the individual who last chewed it.
  • The gum-chewer has been dubbed Lola. She lived 5,700 years ago; and she had dark skin, dark hair, and blue eyes.
Keep reading Show less

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast