Data mapping is a necessary tool against COVID-19. But mass surveillance doesn’t have to be.
This week, the Armenian government passed its most controversial measure yet in its struggle to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, a motion that would allow authorities to access personal phone data passed the first reading in the National Assembly despite strong objections from opposition parties and concerns from privacy watchdogs. The bill was initially defeated in a second reading on Tuesday morning before being pushed through in a late-night session.
Justice Minister Rustam Badasyan, who presented the bill, argued that it would simplify efforts to slow the spread of the virus by better identifying the infection rate. These measures will purportedly be limited to data collected from those already infected and only within the duration of the State of Emergency situation which is scheduled to expire on April 16. The government claims to be amending the text with explicit assurances that the actual content of phone conversations remain protected and all private data be immediately deleted once the pandemic is contained.
Still, the move coincides with a worrying trend where liberal democracies across the world—perhaps naively encouraged by the apparent “success” of Communist China’s authoritarian containment model, irresponsibly endorsed by the WHO—are considering unheard-of draconian measures to fight the contagion. In France, drones patrol the streets to enforce curfews. Canada’s Liberal minority government has leveraged the situation in an attempted power grab, while Hungary has done away with the trappings of democracy altogether. Citizens across Europe and North America are being bluntly told to “get used to” a new reality where mass surveillance is the norm. No matter the approach, individual liberty is always the first victim.
Predictably, Armenia’s parliamentary opposition parties aren’t having any of it. Edmon Marukyan, who leads the liberal-leaning Bright Armenia Party (BAP) strongly condemned the measure, declaring, “We are against ceding our liberties.” With a flair for the dramatic, he later illustrated his point with a tweet of himself perusing through George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Prosperous Armenia Party (PAP)’s Naira Zohrabyan also dismissed the measure as “meaningless.” Questions arose from within the government itself about the effectiveness of monitoring phone data in cases where infections spread through social settings like supermarket visits or in public. (Preliminary data from Armenia suggests that outside of the initial outbreaks, the virus has primarily spread through community transmission. No cases have been reported in supermarkets at the time of this writing.)
Assuming that these objections are genuine expressions of concern—rather than political posturing—they reveal a troubling political reality, but also a general misunderstanding of how pandemic containment strategies work.
Until humanity develops some form of resistance to the novel coronavirus—either through herd immunity or vaccination (both scenarios likely months away)—the most effective containment strategy involves a combination of early detection and contact tracing. The first requires widespread accurate testing, while the second calls for massive amounts of real-time data.
Once testing equipment becomes sufficiently available, healthcare workers could identify carriers more quickly and isolate them before they have a chance to transmit the infection. The next step is to identify and isolate anyone which was in contact with a carrier during the incubation period, in doing so “flattening the curve” enough to relieve overburdened health services. But people may lie or honestly not recall who they’d been in contact with days before. This is where data collection plays an important role. In the words of data scientist Seth Davidowitz, “Big data serves as a digital truth serum.” Tracing phone records would help healthcare workers map potential contagions and quickly contain them.
Yet mobile phone tracking also beholds a proactive function for public health authorities: projection modeling. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told CNN on Sunday, “When someone creates a model, they put in various assumptions. The model is only as good and as accurate as your assumptions.” Human behavior constitutes the most important variable in replacing assumptions with accurate projections. At this point, smartphone monitoring remains the most widespread and proven method of collecting enough sample data to predict human behavior and by extension, infection rates during a pandemic.
Mobile data tracking plays a key role in Communist China’s brutally effective virus containment strategy. State-owned telecoms share “color-coded” user data with authorities to ensure that suspected carriers can’t escape checkpoints. Search histories and app records are crawled through to extrapolate potential infection symptoms. Other countries too are employing variations of mobile tracking to coordinate containment efforts, but not all rely on storing personally identifiable data.
In Singapore, the government’s open-source TraceTogether app relies on records of bluetooth interactions between smartphones to warn citizens who come in contact with known carriers of the disease. The Singapore Health Ministry claims that the app doesn’t record location data or access contact lists, but they do have the ability to decrypt user information “if necessary.” Human Rights Watch is pushing for alternative voluntary methods of data sharing, like the Private Kit: Safe Paths app, which stores encrypted and anonymous GPS data locally on a user’s phone. Ultimately, a combination of anonymous big data collection and edge computing could provide a large enough population sample for the predictive algorithms while divulging nothing about individual citizens.
Of course, legitimate public health purposes don’t negate privacy concerns. “Emergencies” have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have eroded,” once said economist and Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek. And history has proven him right time and time again. The hopelessly bloated nanny-states which characterize western liberal-democracy in the 21st century trace their origins to the endlessly-extended emergency war-economies of the past. To quote another Nobel Prize-winning economic theorist, this time Milton Friedman: “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
The concern is no less relevant to Armenia, where young democratic institutions remain vulnerable to populist or authoritarian whims. At the moment, thankfully, there is no indication that the authorities plan on extending emergency powers beyond the scope of the crisis. The fact that this administration has shown itself to be attentive to the privacy concerns sparked by the measure and included checks and balances into a much more watered-down third reading of the bill is encouraging. The government has already relaxed the media restrictions attached to the emergency situations legislation following outcry from civil rights groups and has treaded carefully in suspending habeas corpus.
So far, Armenia’s authorities have received (well-deserved) praise for their measured, yet decisive handling of the pandemic. The government has shown its ability to react quickly and responsively to a rapidly developing global crisis despite inexperience and limited resources. In stark contrast to neighboring ex-soviet dictatorships, the transparent nature of information distribution—best exemplified by daily live updates from both the Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan and Prime Minister Pashinyan—has helped cultivate an unprecedented sense of public trust and social solidarity, with potentially life-saving results.
Ignoring, for the moment, that Armenian citizens have likely been victims of illegal state wiretapping for decades, Armenia shouldn’t be faulted for choosing already-proven solutions at its disposal rather than theoretical concepts, given the urgency. What matters now is that authorities seriously consider non-invasive alternatives for next time.
That said, members of democratic societies still bear responsibility for keeping elected officials accountable to the constitutional limits of their authority. Yet fulfilling that obligation requires remaining alive for the duration of the pandemic. Thus, ironically, the first step in ensuring the survival of Armenian democracy is to comply with executive orders: stay home and practice regular hygiene. The second is to lobby authorities to adopt innovative data collection methods which boost social equality and public health without compromising individual rights.
Ultimately, the real danger isn’t the emergency situation itself, but when citizens come to accept mass surveillance as a new normal. Wilson’s final thoughts on the last page of Orwell’s 1984 should resonate with Marukyan: ”But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”