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Data is key to overcoming the coronavirus crisis

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Data is crucial to tackling the Covid-19 crisis – but upholding privacy and having transparency, control and autonomy over the use of data is essential.

Citizens all over the world are being asked by governments to submit to technological surveillance on a scale never before seen. The reason: to protect the collective, as we traverse the Covid-19 crisis.

Some of these changes are deeply sinister: witness the enabling act that instantiates autocracy in what we might honestly now refer to as Orban’s Hungary.

But even at a lower level of abstraction than ad hoc autocracy, there are dilemmas and debates that need to be openly had. At the RSA, we recognise that our collective safety at this moment is of paramount importance.

But we also maintain that there are key safeguards that we can and must put in place to ensure that, as we bridge to the future, the needs of the moment do not ripen into a dystopian future. These safeguards and the discourse that much accompany them are the subject of this piece.

The current situation

The fight against coronavirus requires us to re-envision our relationship to radical, data-driven technologies. Today, apps and algorithms are being used to track the movement and spread of the virus (read: the movement of citizens), and to monitor the compliance of citizenry with the rules of official lockdowns.

In the USA, state governments are in talks with Google, Facebook and even the extremely controversial ClearView, to track the movement of its citizens. China, already a global ‘leader’ in state surveillance, is using the payment system AliPay to assess and assign a RAG (red-amber-green) rating to its citizens and therefore dictate whether they are allowed to travel and whether they should be self-isolating.

South Korea's government has been revealing extremely intimate details of the private lives and recent whereabouts of those that test positive for Covid-19, in some cases leading to social stigma (a phenomenon also noted in the USA). Closer to home, Italy's national and regional governments are using mobile phone data to monitor the movement of its citizenry, concluding that too many were not complying fully with lockdown measures, and making adjustments accordingly.

Within the UK we, at the moment, are slightly behind this curve, but surely this is not for long. NHSX is currently creating an app which will work to trace contacts of those infected, and may be used to monitor social distancing compliance. The government is also reportedly in talks with mobile phone operators O2 and BT (owner of EE), to find ways to track UK citizens' movement using 3, 4 and 5G networks.

These apps and other technologies may well be highly effective, if they hit the 60-70 percent uptake rate needed to be effective (which is certainly not guaranteed). As we have seen in China, Singapore and elsewhere, using digital tools to see and control the flow of the virus can limit the impact of the pandemic. And so, as the logic goes, we must be prepared to give a chunk of our private information to authorities and business to analyse as well if we are to corner the pandemic.

Undervaluing public discourse

There are, however, complications to being too fatalistic about the necessary rise of data-driven technologies. Part of the reason for this is that these technologies depend upon user consent. When that consent is absent, the technology may be dropped en masse; in the case of Covid-19 technologies, this would be truly fatal.

Deliberating about data might be seen as a somewhat esoteric exercise by some and yet, even prior to Covid-19, there was latent demand in evidence. Research by the RSA, Open Data Institute and Luminate completed pre-outbreak shows that we the public in fact have a greater understanding and stronger opinions on the use of data than they are often given credit for by policymakers, journos or indeed each other. Our research and conversations with citizens of varying technical abilities, not only in the UK but in Germany, evidenced a real hunger to play an active role in governing the new data world, of exercising democratic control of data about us.

Our research found that there is a sophisticated understanding - and some strong opinions - among the general public regarding the collection, use and value of data about them. The public therefore expected greater honesty, transparency, rights, agency, control, and enforceability of their data and data rights.

Today we launch the latest intervention in this work, in which we expand this conversation to forums in the UK and in Berlin.

Turning bugs into features

In a recent article, Matthew Taylor outlined three conditions for lasting, progressive change pursuant to the Covid-19 outbreak:

  1. There must be latent potential: an underlying desire and logic for things to be different
  2. Precipitating factors are harnessed: events that create momentum for change and reinforce the latent potential
  3. Workable mechanisms are deployed: concrete ways of embedding change in social structures - an effective political alliance and policy agenda to turn the potential into reality.

As we have seen from our data rights work, there already existed a desire among the public for greater say and control over their data rights. If the crisis is the catalyst, how do we deliver workable mechanisms that prompt positive change?

This is where deliberation – facilitated conversation by citizens  comes in. The RSA’s Tech and Society team has found deliberation of inestimable value, not only in building trust between citizens and radical technologies, but also in enabling citizens to co-design governance mechanisms. The RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI enabled just this sort of dialogue in the context of automated decision systems.

New spaces can enable new, rapid deliberative methods and technologies to intersect. In an open letter signed by many technologists, building in transparency and autonomy within any future government contact tracking apps is exactly what is being demanded.

Get this right and the bug of changing social norms around data becomes a feature that unlocks a new civic conversation. Deliberation and transparency mean that personal freedom and public health need not be a zero-sum game, as we are collectively enriched by taking charge of our data future.

We can voluntarily offer data for governments to use, and we can still have control, autonomy and transparency around its use, provided we have a space within which to debate and approve these provisions and redefine citizenship. Design of these spaces for digital democracy is key; this is the case pre-coronavirus and it will be the same on the other side as well.

Read the report: Talking about data about us

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