Contact Tracing… sorry, Tracking: What could possibly go wrong?

UPDATE: AS SOON AS I HIT ‘POST’ ON THIS LONG-DELAYED RANT, WORD CAME IN ABOUT THE INDIAN GOVERNMENT RELENTING FURTHER ON THE VULNERABILITIES IDENTIFIED IN THE AAROGYA SETU SYSTEM. THE FOOT-DRAGGING, MONTH-LONG DELAY IN THIS RESPONSE, AND THE INTRODUCTION OF NEW PROBLEMATIC CLAUSES IN THE T&C DO NOT GO FAR IN ALLAYING OUR FEARS AND LEGITIMATE CONCERNS

You’ve seen them everywhere: Those nanny-state cartoon characters obediently following the plan. Acing their Coronavirus response with a composure that could fool you into believing this entire exercise was a junior school PE drill.

They’ve colonised our media, pamphletted their way into every WhatsApp University conversation and stare placidly at us from barricades hastily drawn across quarantined streets and neighbourhoods where we’re led to believe real people are simply keeping calm and carrying on.

But don’t let the emoji-cute aesthetics and blunt propaganda of this cut-price global ad campaign distract you from the fact that another enemy has quietly gathered at our rear gate. Packing a viral load large enough to flatten us forever.

Thanks to a blitz of government overreach unimaginable in saner times, PRIVACY has its delicate neck on the guillotine. And unlike a cartoon character in a Lego Movie, once it has been defenestrated, it may never be able to get up and reconstitute itself.

The private has quickly turned public in this existential and immensely social crisis, because the overt risk of transmission is one vector our hapless regimes can bluntly tackle. And we have bought their alibi for extra-constitutional action in good faith, complying with house arrests and herd control, weakly negotiating the extent to which we can adjust our lockdown dials until a vaccine arrives to save us.

But while it isn’t as baleful as some of the Trumpery we’ve been offered throughout The Great Wait, the shiny new Band-Aid being sold to us threatens to dangerously switch this dial to autopilot and break off the lever.

Terms and conditions don’t apply

They call it ‘contact tracing’ – a simple enough premise with an iron-clad benefit. It currently packs enough moral momentum to override any scrutiny. But without the correct design, intentions and protections, an innocuous phone app which measures the time we inadvertently spend around an invisible virus has ready potential to become a tool for authoritarian interests to curtail our permanent right to remain invisible, spend time with anyone we choose, and be ordinarily treated as law-abiding citizens in good faith and without the burden of proof.

Worst of all, without a corresponding quantum increase in the rollout of testing, quarantine and treatment facilities, which hasn’t been priority one since day one, it is likely to be as effective as staying home indefinitely and waiting for the storm to pass.

29 national governments are already testing separate versions of this quasi-Orwellian superweapon.

Thanks to history, geography and the internet, every citizen of India is painfully aware of the machinations of the Chinese state. There’s no way we’re going to swallow the batshit PR about the success of the Wuhan QR experiment without a bucketful of salty MSG. We’ve also been rattled as we’ve seen our own megastate increasingly borrow some of China’s worst authoritarian impulses and tactics. Yet, in our desperation to resume a way of life that certainly bears much responsibility for this crisis and which will certainly churn out many more, we’re queueing up to embrace the petulant promises of some IT guy who makes Elon Musk look like an empath, seeming to have lost the capacity to value what we stand to surrender.

lalit1

“I don’t know if you realise it, but the fact that I have to display my licence plate and the fact that I am not allowed to have dark tinted windows that too is a loss of privacy.”    – this IT guy

Freedom ain’t Free?

Crises have long been used as an opportunity by governments and corporations to infringe on civil liberties in the name of public safety and convenience. From mass surveillance in return for keeping us safe from ‘the terrorists’ to the willful handover of our innermost thoughts and feelings in return for social acceptance, we’ve become inured to the abuse of extraordinary power in extraordinary times.

But there have also always been watchdogs on the wall — along with fringe activists, concerned parents, and ethical lawyers even, who have pushed back against our silent capitulation.

In addition to a superspreading of grudge-bearing authoritarian regimes, these digilantes have had to contend with a lightly regulated data brokerage industry that is already worth over two hundred billion dollars. And right now they’re all out on their terraces banging pots and pans to sound a level-five fire alarm.

Several ethical hackers [and Pakistan’s ever-compassionate cyber ops team] have revealed how easy it is to dangerously tamper with the Indian Aarogya Setu system – currently the most widely adopted contact tracking app, at 115 million downloads and counting.

These freedom fighters and their ilk will no doubt be exiled to a leper colony meant for coronoavillains under the aegis of some new expatriate act. Even before we anointed ours a wartime administration, this had become the new normal in India. Civil rights warriors of unimpeachable character have been routinely tarred as anti-nationals and stand charged with sedition simply for questioning the callousness of government policy.

In a country where even the shadow of suspicion is enough to get a person lynched, and where the mobile phone has been weaponised as a tool of violent disinformation, it should not reassure citizens that they may have to carry a plague cross around in their pockets — no matter how pleasantly cartoonish its appearance — which can easily be leaked to the freewheeling vigilante groups of their locality. And given the brazen communal tendencies exposed in the national government’s attempts at rolling out a hideous racial profiling program, there’s also the very real risk that it will be used to mislabel and excoriate certain sections of society. You do not need to look far beyond the smokescreen of the headlines to see how this psychopathic administration continues to revel in crisis and recognise the depressing animal spirits it has awoken in us all.

Of course this isn’t Bharat’s cross to bear alone – the pandemic has exposed similar faultiness and misanthropy across the globe. Despite striking the sainted and the unholy with an equally fickle hand, this virus carries a whole lot of stigma as one of its symptoms. And the moralising and shame that come with infection are getting in the way of an effective scientific response.

Which of these Corona Castaways would you like to be isolated with?

While it is based on sound science, Aarogya Setu in its present avatar is a dangerous threat not only to our autonomy but also to the suggestion that we are a mature civilisation — challenging the notion that we are capable of vigilance, reasonable compliance and responsible community action without heavy-handed policing. There is some evidence to support this position. While the animal spirits of the gun-toting libertarians of the American far-right are easy to deride, the apparent failure of Sweden’s free-will experiment is sobering.

Public figures in India have recently taken to replacing their display pictures with the shield of their local police cadre. The institutionalized brutality seen in the recent past has been swept under the carpet as we swear by their methods to keep India’s desperate hordes from storming [in or out] of our citadels.

We should also be very afraid of what’s next. Regimes are like heroin addicts when it comes to the easy abrogation of citizen’s rights. And so there is naturally talk of Immunity Passports – which is just as dystopic as the name suggests.

Just another day at Pre-School

We need to stand up right now to defend our freedoms but the prevailing feeling is one of resignation. And not because of the relentless bruising we’ve gotten from the virus.

We all know we live in barely opaque glass houses now. Too scared to cast a trackable stone. Too afraid of the data we’ve already given up and petrified that it will be used against us.

History will show us we were wrong.

This primer details the extent of control we have already surrendered as we rushed into the digital embrace of corporations and governments — and it reveals that all is not necessarily lost.

The companies that are naturally incentivised to monetise our data and the governments which hold on to it beyond any period of reasonable use have found that, although we may have balked at reading arcane Terms and Conditions, we still have plenty of purchase to claw back some of our inalienable rights.

Back in India, the Ministry of Home Affairs recently stepped back from the brink in the face of a persistent legal counter thrust from entities like the Software Freedom Law Centre which took great pains to point out the deeply problematic.flaws of Aarogya Setu. But although the app is no longer a mandatory download in exchange for all our limited freedoms, no attempts have been made to address these issues and it remains recommended on a ‘best effort’ basis.

That arm-twisting effort – and any blame for the subsequent failure to contain the virus [which is a given thanks to a thorough dissembling of the country’s cooperative federal structure] has been thrust outward to our state governments, which are hamstrung and find their backs up against a wall.

Here’s the plan

Now is not the time to embrace fatalism. It’s like a Trojan Horse has gotten stuck under the entrance of our castle and we’re being asked rudely to raise the archway height.

The only thing we know with any certainty about the efficacy of using smartphone-based contact tracing to contain the Covid-19 infection risk [and there are so many unknowns about the infection patterns even – including weather, time, space, susceptibility, viral strains, loads, shedding rates, immunological responses, etc] is that it only works if everyone is on the program. And every single one of those people would have to put their faith in the rest of the population to self-identify as soon as they turned positive. And most cases will remain asymptomatic. And not everyone has a smartphone.

The optimistic estimate that at most 60-70% of any country population will subscribe to any particular app system still means that they all have zero chance of being effective.

That should be reason enough to nip this effort in the bud. But it doesn’t mean that contact tracing needs to be abandoned wholesale.

There is a human-interface contact tracing protocol which already exists, which was used effectively to halt the spread of SARS and Ebola, which functions within a trusted framework and with checks and balances to protect privacy, which would yield pre-verified, rapidly-actionable data, which can be scaled up without technology and which offers the benefit of massive employment through recruitment of hundreds of thousands of public health workers.

Replacing a peacocking ‘made-in-India’ mobile contact tracer with a decentralised, call-center-based human virus detective network is deliberately less flashy, lower-tech and more labour intensive but it is also — for these very reasons — more reliable, and workers can be sensitised to approach the problem with humanity. and with every last citizen in mind.

Because PM cares about himself mostly

It also helps us step away from the government’s contempt for community and the marginalised, revealed in its frequent dalliance with tech hubris. This is the honest way to get ‘vocal for local’ — and fight back against hollow sloganeering and the opportunism of a divide and rule marketing program.

How to be good

Unless you’re high off mask-hypoxia, drinking hydroxychloroquine out of a dogbowl and desperate to get on a plane just to get away from [or to] your family, you should sit tight and wait for the real miracle app/cure/lockdown collapse to come.

Speaking up is optional, but you should remember that we used to be able to do this without asking for permission. And if you require it, here’s a list of facts you can use against WhatsApp Uncle when he hits peak rancidity and accuses you of being a conscientious objector:

  • Tracing and not tracking is all that’s necessary. Tracing uses bluetooth to identify if you’ve been in prolonged contact with a Covid19-positive individual. This is what Apple and Google are rolling out. Your government does not need to know where you’ve been by tracking your GPS, Unless they’ve got underhanded reasons to do so.. Also, bluetooth is glitchy and unreliable
  • Aarogya Setu relies on people self-declaring their infection status. This means that the information is already with the Indian Council of Medical Research, which has been tasked with getting on the phone with patients via local helplines and coordinating an isolation and treatment response. In a spectacular example of roundtripping, this data now needs to go via the ICMR to a central Aarogya Setu register and then back to the ICMR for their response. The only reason this would make sense is if the central government wanted to be the repository of data – not trusting local entities. Also, this says nothing about asymptomatic carriers?
  • The government needs to come clean about what they plan to do once they’ve successfully implemented a track and trace strategy. This document is a great place to start:
  • Immunity passports are NOT scientific. There is plenty of data to suggest that carrying antibodies does not protect one from re-infection. Nor does it mean that you may not be continuing to shed the virus once you’ve recovered from infection.
  • Someone needs to be responsible for potential misuse of data. This will go a long way in removing the misgivings we have over the leaks, and even worse, the embarrassing sale of Aadhar data to marketing entities. Also, the data must be sunsetted within a reasonable timeframe
  • WE NEED A DATA PROTECTION ACT TODAY – otherwise we will continue to see our scarce-remaining freedoms leeched away in service of a smiley happy berserk technocratic future which will make the lockdown days seem like a cartoon movie

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