David Rutland was infected with COVID-19 and lived to tell the tale. Read how he’s coming to terms with the “sweet” surrender of government surveillance in the age of pandemic.
I’ve spent the last year attempting to break free from the shackles of big surveillance.
It’s been seven months since I ditched my Gmail account along with my Android device, and almost as long since I last used Google’s search engine. News comes to me through a self-hosted full-text RSS reader, which resides on my Raspberry Pi-based server along with a self-hosted cloud photo gallery, a self-hosted Office solution, and a few random self-hosted WordPress sites.
Facebook and WhatsApp were deleted years ago; I buy rather than stream, and pirate when that option is unavailable–not because I object to paying for entertainment, but because I don’t want anyone to be able to build up a picture of what I’m watching or listening to. My Friday night romantic playlist of Dave Alvin classics would indicate to any casual observer at Spotify HQ that I’m planning on getting laid, while my subsequent 2AM queue of sad, self-indulgent Travis, Coldplay, and Kelly Clarkson numbers would tell them that my erotic plans failed to bear fruit.
In short, I believe the only people who should know where I am and what’s on my mind should be the people I choose to tell. The idea that the bits which represent my location, thoughts, and habits should be scraped and sold is abhorrent enough to make me almost a digital recluse.
I’ve recently come through a bout of coronavirus. It was horrible. Imagine running a marathon and then going to a party where cigars are compulsory, the only drink on offer is 120-proof whisky, and the thermostat on the AC unit is broken–causing it to behave as if it’s playing hopscotch across Mercury’s terminator line. Add in some deeply disturbing dreams, and the morning after that party was my COVID-19 experience for two and a bit weeks. Your own experience, when it inevitably arrives, may be different.
It’s a terrifying thought that we may lose a single figure percentage of the world’s population to the disease. And it’s galling to me, as a technological libertarian–an independent cyberpunk–that big brother snooping forms an essential part of the strategy to keep freshly dug mass graves in a state of minimum occupancy.
This isn’t the 19th century when scientists and physicians were basically guessing how disease spreads. We know that Covid-19 is transmitted from from person to person and there is an extended period during which a person can spread the disease without displaying symptoms themselves. And thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones, we are, for the first time in history, capable of tracing an outbreak in real time, as it happens.
Over 80% of Americans now own a smartphone, and to those with access to the location data, back-tracing the contacts of a person now showing Coronavirus symptoms is simple.
But not me–I don’t need to be spied on. I obey the rules. I avoid parks and other public areas. I go shopping as infrequently as possible. I accompany my half-blind dog as he staggers around the block once per day. I’ve stopped running. It’s other people who need to be tracked – the ones attending parties and barbecues, and hooking up on Tinder for covert COVID assignations. Or assembling in techno lynch mobs to set fire to the 5G mobile masts they believe are spreading the virus.
Not me. I’m safe.
Opting Back Into Big Brother
Except that I was taking precautions even before I caught the dreaded disease. Every action I was advised to take by the government, I took. Everything I was supposed to avoid, I avoided. But COVID-19 got me anyway.
Possibly, I caught the virus from someone standing too close behind me in the queue at Tesco. More likely, it was from my wife who works in a special needs school which remains open even as the majority of educational institutions have shuttered the doors and barred the windows.
I probably had the virus–and was spreading it–for up to a fortnight before I felt poorly enough to take to my bed. I have, without any doubt, given it to other people, and a backdated record of my movements would be potentially valuable to any model of COVID 19 transmission. If I used an Android handset or an iPhone, a complete record of my movements, accurate to within a couple of meters, would be available to Public Health England, possibly along with the identity of whoever I was standing next to. With the way I conduct my technological life right now, that kind of tracing is impossible by design. If anyone was really interested, they could ask my network provider, which would be able to reveal what part of town I was in to within a few hundred meters. But a few hundred meters isn’t much use when trying to map transmission during a pandemic, and just because I am now (probably) immune, doesn’t mean that I can’t still pass the virus in new and interesting ways. Droplets of someone else’s virus-laden snot on my jacket can stay alive for nine days as I carry it about with me.
The health authorities need to know where I am. They need to know where everybody is. Right now, in this particular situation, when it seems civilization itself is under threat, do I have a moral duty to allow myself to be tracked?
Drinking white wine in the supernatural quiet of my back yard, listening to the background of dry, hacking coughs from neighbors in my densely packed suburb, the answer is probably yes.
Wanting To Help
In a way, the choice has been taken away from me because I want to help in a more practical way than just allowing Google to digest my location data and make it available to the policy planners.
Intensive care units are overflowing, and vulnerable people are trapped in their homes, unable to leave–advised by HMG to stay safe, stay indoors, and protect the NHS. The most vulnerable (including my mother-in-law) have been asked to sign Do Not Resuscitate orders to ensure that if the demand for ventilators and hospital beds does outstrip supply (as seems more likely in countries other than in UK), they won’t be competing with the comparatively young and healthy in a contest where the only prize is a chance to live a little longer.
These people still need to attend medical appointments at otherwise empty GP surgeries, and they need prescriptions picked up from the pharmacist. They need food to eat.
On March 24th, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock called for 250,000 volunteers to help with ferrying the vulnerable to and from hospitals, delivering drugs, or even just picking up an order at the closest supermarket. More than 700,000 responded, and naturally, it’s a cyberpunk duty to lend a hand. I’ve logged more than 100 on-duty hours, with my full name, mugshot, and location available to anyone using the service–but do they really need me to use an Android handset in order to accept my offer to help?
Well, yes they do. Android is ubiquitous. If you need a quarter of a million volunteers to use a single piece of software, then niche, privacy-oriented operating systems such as Ubuntu Touch (my daily driver) are less than useless. There’s also the chance that someone traveling in my car could be carrying the virus. It’s essential that my movements and contacts are traceable, lest I make a bad situation infinitely worse.
So I’ve bought a metric shit-tonne of industrial strength disinfectant, resurrected an old Samsung handset, bought a new sim card, and linked my old Google account.
It doesn’t mean I have to like it.
It was like I’d never been away.
It doesn’t mean I have to like it, although being given a valid-everywhere parking pass with HM GOVERNMENT stamped across the top is a nice bonus.
The Way Out is More Surveillance
Right now, it seems that the entire world is on lockdown, with movement limited to the absolute bare essentials. Testing is utterly inadequate, and as yet, there isn’t a reliable way of determining who has even had the virus. Anyone could potentially be carrier. Paranoia–as well as a certain deadly viral pathogen–is in the air.
The human race has become used to being monitored as a matter of fact, but by corporations rather than by governments–even if the information is later sold to any government or law enforcement agency which wants to buy it. There’s a quid pro quo in our relationship with the search giants and OS providers–implicit because you didn’t read exactly what you’re giving up (but you really know you’re not actually getting all of this cool stuff for free) and explicit because it’s spelled out in painstaking legalese if you care to read the terms and conditions.
We doubt any of our readers are naive enough not to know what they’re signing up for when they use an Android or iOS device, but as long as the companies keep their monitoring discrete, most of you are prepared to put up with it.
But we’re a little more uneasy that the government can monitor us directly, without the thin facade of a corporate entity acting as middleman. The idea that Google and Apple are working directly for governments would be normally enough to have even the most level-headed cyberpunks dismantling their handset for spare parts.
But these are not normal times, and people are dying by the tens of thousands. At the time of writing, the US has lost 26,000 people to COVID-19, and these are just the ones who have the virus named on their death certificates. Untold thousands more will have died outside of hospital settings.
This week, it was announced that both Google and Apple, the gargantuan arch-rivals of the mobile ecosystem, are working together to develop a contact-tracking application which uses Bluetooth Low Energy to pinpoint your position relative to other people in finer detail than ever before. You’ll be alerted if it’s later revealed that you were within the danger range of a suspected coronavirus carrier, and potentially, you could then be flagged as one.
We’re told that the app would only give away your proximity to other app users, but Google is already sharing location data in the name of the corona crisis, and shaming users who congregate in public spaces.
The tracking app will be pushed out to Android phones running Marshmallow and above just as soon as it’s ready. It may or may not be optional.
But. . . whatever. If it means we can get back to normal a little quicker then it’s worth it. Right?
The New “Normal”
That’s a phrase we’ve used a lot on this site. It’s in the title of one article and the phrase is contained in the text of a few more. And yet, it never gets old because there is always a new normal, a new danger lurking on the horizon. Some more bullshit for us aging cyberpunks to deal with.
The old normal will be a distant memory after Azrael’s coronavirus-laden wing passes from the world. It’s almost certain that we’ll be in a recession, and social distancing will have become a thing that we’re used to.
We’ll also be more accustomed to the idea of tech companies working hand in glove with each other and with governments to keep a very close eye on subjects in the name of public health.
The contact tracing technology will have proved its worth in stopping the slaughter, and technocrats will be looking at new and interesting ways to employ it to make the world a better place. People will accept it.
My Android phone will be deactivated and pushed to the back of a drawer.
Until next time.