Resistance to the new data colonialism must start now

Governments and corporations should not be allowed to use the pandemic as an excuse to expand surveillance.

China masks
Commuters wear face masks to protect against the spread of new coronavirus as they walk through a subway station in Beijing, on April 9, 2020 [AP/Mark Schiefelbein]

We are told this is a time of hard choices, a time when emergency tracking measures via our digital devices are necessary if any return to normal life post-COVID-19 is possible.

We are told that one part of the planet (“the East”) had these surveillance measures imposed on them by authoritarian states, while the other part (“the West”) has the chance to “opt in” to solutions which supposedly respect their privacy.

Even if the East/West contrast were not already an oversimplification, it illuminates little, because the very same dynamic underlies both approaches: a new colonial push to convert all of human life into streams of data for economic value and political power. The real choice today is about whether to resist this broader trend. But how can we think about resistance during a multi-layered crisis that affects health, the economy and society all at once?

First, we should take a cool look at the proposed technological solutions. Consider the recent proposal by Apple and Google for a new interface (or API) that will facilitate contact tracing. The proposal is similar to other solutions already implemented in places like Singapore, and it may be adopted by public health authorities all over the world, although some governments (like the UK’s) have already announced they are not interested. Regardless of who ends up using it, while the solution is being lauded for its use of encryption to protect privacy, many questions remain.

Like many encryption systems, the API is potentially vulnerable to interception, and there is an additional risk of false positives which hinder, rather than help, the medical services. The API replies on the exchange of Bluetooth signals between phones to reveal recent proximity with phone owners who have admitted having the virus. But proximity for the API’s purposes may be very different from medically relevant proximity: Bluetooth signals can reach across several hundred feet and through walls: the virus cannot.

There are dangerous side-effects, too. The API and any public health app built upon it will require people to carry their smartphone everywhere with Bluetooth switched on, exposing users to the risk of identifying themselves to other tracking systems, such as those used by marketers. These privacy risks are not entirely new, of course (many people already leave Bluetooth switched on), but they risk becoming normalised, if this app is adopted.

We will become used to the idea that social order can only be maintained when we have our phones switched on at all times (which many of us already do) and logged to virus tracking apps. Corporations and governments will hope through the app to have given the impression they are “doing something” while creating another opportunity for the non-stop collection and extraction of data in an emerging trend we call “data colonialism”.

Data colonialism is the startling new social order based on continuous tracking of our devices and online lives that has created unprecedented opportunities for social discrimination and behavioural influence by corporations. It goes well beyond the social media platforms and search engines that have attracted most criticism, and comprises a complete reorganisation of everyday life and business.

True, data colonialism may not have all the features for which historic colonialism is now most remembered (extreme physical violence, for instance). But if we think about the core function of colonialism in world history – to exploit the world’s resources on a completely new scale, redefining human relations to economic production in the process – the parallel is clear.

Instead of land and labour, what this new colonialism appropriates is human life itself, as captured by data. Health data is the “open frontier” for this new “land grab”, as initiatives such as Google’s Project Nightingale made evident last year.

The COVID-19 crisis is only exacerbating data colonialism. Many hi-tech solutions already implemented are less scrupulous than the Apple-Google proposal, as we can see in China. Thanks to its widespread surveillance infrastructure, the Chinese Communist Party has been using a combination of location data, contact data and AI-processed facial recognition to track the movement of specific individuals.

Citizens themselves can use an app to see if they have been in contact with an infected person, while another app assigns them a colour code determining their freedom to move about. In Hong Kong, wristbands are being used to monitor the movement of individuals.

But concerns are not limited to authoritarian governments. For instance, the UK has considered tracing measures that allow the removal of anonymity at the government’s option. To this end, Britain’s National Health Service is partnering with Big Tech giants Amazon, Microsoft and Palantir to help coordinate its coronavirus response.

Some of these measures may be acceptable in the short term, but what if they become permanent features of an expanded corporate/state surveillance apparatus? Emergency measures always disproportionately endanger specific groups, converting a general suspension of liberties into something more targeted.

This happened post-9/11 with the aggressive US surveillance practices codified in the name of homeland security. In the case of COVID-19, the targeted group will not necessarily be Muslims, but those infected with the coronavirus.

While the disease itself does not discriminate, it is becoming increasingly clear that in the US and India, for example, fear of contagion is being used to target specific groups along racial or social class lines. COVID-19 has been strategically labelled by US President Donald Trump as the “Chinese virus”, and the Department of Homeland Security is preparing to militarise the US borders to protect against immigrants’ “potential to spread infectious disease”.

In India, lockdown measures have had a disproportionate impact on the poor, unleashing the greatest human exodus since that country’s partition.

There is a historical connection here. The intersection of disease, data and power long predates the current crisis. The colonisation of the American continent resulted in the death of 90 percent of the native population (more than 50 million people), of whom 95 percent died from diseases brought from Europe.

The spread of disease was not part of the plan of the European invaders of Latin America five centuries ago, but it created an unprecedented opportunity for the conquerors. While we do not pretend for a moment that the fatality rate for COVID-19 is itself comparable – the World Health Organization placed it at 3.4 percent on March 3, and other figures suggest a mortality rate of 6 percent – the lesson that epidemics create opportunities for power to expand its reach in drastic ways is clear.

As fear of the recurrence of the coronavirus persists, we can anticipate that states will intensify permanently the restriction and tracking of movements across borders and within cities. The pretext will be monitoring disease, as happened consistently during periods of colonial government, but the tools will increasingly involve following citizens through their data-generating devices.

Such forms of rule through “hygiene” are already entangled with existing regimes for managing migrants’ movement across borders in an increasingly unstable global economy, making ever more dangerous the world’s migrant detention camps.

We need to resist the forms of data opportunism that are looking to take advantage of the current crisis. We must reject the use of data to target specific groups in the name of health and security. Above all, we must reject the default assumption that fuels data colonialism: the idea that the continuous extraction of data from our daily lives is somehow a public good and not just a corporate gain. If we fail to limit the tech “solutions” under way, we risk hardwiring the history of colonial appropriation, old and new, into our future.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.