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‘Contact Tracing’ Of Dissidents

A coming technological measure against COVID-19 presages broader oppression

Over the weekend I received in e-mail from my editor the marked-up manuscript for Live Not By Lies, my next book. I will be making the revisions she suggests, and we will finally be done with it. Publication is set for September.

I turned the original manuscript in earlier this year, before the coronavirus pandemic. In that manuscript, I talk at length about the Chinese surveillance system, including social credit, and I speak about how we are slowly, steadily, and imperceptibly accustoming ourselves here in the West to the same kind of thing. I write about what Shoshanna Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”: her name for the informal system of data harvesting from everyone’s smartphones, online activity, and suchlike. We have created a system of commerce in which it is very difficult to conduct daily life without handing over a lot of data to third parties. I spoke by phone the other day to a Christian friend who works in the tech division of a major global corporation. She told me that most people have no idea at all how much of their personal data are being taken all the time, with their unwitting consent.  This is not conspiracy theory; this is simply the truth.

We are told that privacy laws protect us, but as Edward Snowden’s revelations made plain, these don’t mean much. They’re better than what Chinese citizens have, but the fact is, the state has access to any data it wants. In the manuscript of my book, I talk about how in China, the state’s elaborate surveillance system can track people, and know automatically, via GPS data and facial recognition, if a person is going into a place where he is not supposed to be, e.g., a church. And the state docks your social credit score if you interact with people of whom the state disapproves, meaning that if you are connected online, or visit in person, someone who is on the government’s blacklist, the system automatically tracks that, and curtails your social privileges.

We have the same technological capabilities in the US, but they haven’t been deployed to any great extent. In the manuscript, I talk about my prediction that we will move into a situation in which government and private corporations begin to restrict, sometimes through shadow bans, people whose online activity reveals them to be part of socially “harmful” associations, and connected to ideas that threaten the “health and safety” of the commons. The logic used by progressives to suppress speech and assembly that they don’t like, in the name of protecting the health and safety of the “marginalized,” and “vulnerable minorities,” is clear. In the manuscript, I say that we are moving inexorably toward this in our society. I have expected that it will move in fits and starts. Without a totalitarian government already in place, as in China, it will have to be the sort of thing that sneaks up on us unawares.

The events that have occurred in the two months since I submitted my manuscript — the pandemic, I mean — have clarified things. We found ourselves suddenly living in a world in which most of life has been shut down for the sake of saving lives from a pandemic. We are likely to face rolling lockdowns over the next 18 months, or even longer, if it takes more time to invent a vaccine. The economic destruction is and will be incalculable — and this will cause a great political upheaval. People will accept things they might not have accepted in normal times.

One of those things is “contact tracing.” The NYT reported the other day:

In one of the most far-ranging attempts to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Apple and Google said they were building software into smartphones that would tell people if they were recently in contact with someone who was infected with it.

The technology giants said they were teaming up to release the tool within several months, building it into the operating systems of the billions of iPhones and Android devices around the world. That would enable the smartphones to constantly log other devices they come near, enabling what is known as “contact tracing” of the disease. People would opt in to use the tool and voluntarily report if they became infected.

It’s a brilliant idea, and it will work. We may soon find ourselves in a situation where, in order to re-enter the workforce, one has to accept the app and use it. If the other option is more lockdowns, more shutdowns of the economy, which do you think people will prefer? Apple and Google are saying that this will naturally come with privacy provisions in place. I’m sure they will — and I also expect that they will be worthless.

Here’s the thing, though: data companies already track us now. They’ve been doing it for years. Remember back in late March when that cool story came out in which two data companies demonstrated, using tracking capabilities on people’s cellphones, how Fort Lauderdale spring breakers scattered to the entire eastern half of the country? We already have the technological means to do this kind of thing, and it is already legal. It’s not a big leap to create an app to use coronavirus status to track who has it, and with whom they are associating.

This is how we are going to become accustomed to using data to monitor who is associating with whom, for the health of the body politic. Hear me: I am not saying that this is a bad thing, necessarily, though whether or not I think it’s bad won’t matter to a nation that is suffering from the trauma of poverty, and will accept most anything that will make it easier to get back to work. What I am saying is that this is how social surveillance and control is going to be mainstreamed in our liberal democratic society. Once we have established that it is necessary to track people’s associations systematically for the sake of defeating disease, it will be easier, in the near future, to justify tracking people’s associations systematically for the sake of defeating “bigotry,” which threatens the health and safety of official victims.

In early 20th century Germany, a cult of health arose in popular culture; it was called Lebensreform. In journalism of the late teens and early twenties, people began talking about the German nation as a physical body. To guard the health of the body, Germans were advised to be on guard against unhealthy elements, including parasites. It didn’t take long before people began identifying Jews and others as parasites who threatened the health of the body politic.

Does that mean that it was wrong to care about promoting healthy eating, clean living, and public and personal hygiene? Of course not! Nor is it wrong to promote public health measures in our time and place to limit the spread of this deadly pandemic. To the frustration of some readers, I have supported the efforts by civil and religious authorities to limit religious gatherings temporarily, to fight the pandemic. My point is simply that we should be very, very vigilant about how we talk about health and safety, so that we guard against bad actors making malicious political use of proper concern for health and hygiene.

This pandemic is going to cause tremendous social changes, especially changes in the way we all regard the power of the state, the role of technology in our lives, and the limits of liberty. I am a pessimist. I think the oppression of traditional religious believers and social conservatives is coming, and that “contact tracing” of those carrying “unhealthy” ideas is on its way in America — as it already exists in China. It is unlikely to be stopped, because of the rapidly growing secularization and social liberalization of Millennials and younger generations. I believe we have to fight it when we can, but we should absolutely prepare ourselves to live as dissidents, including living some aspects of our lives underground. That is what my next book is about.



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