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Surveillance, Privacy and Trust

In his starkly titled article, “Has Trust Become Irrelevant?” in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times of January 19, 2020, Laurence Scott lays out why, when so many are under surveillance, privacy is gone, and trust becomes meaningless. The underlying concept is that, if you have someone under surveillance via a remote video app or just an onsite camera, you no longer need to trust that person with doing something that you requested and/or are paying for, since you can see for yourself. This applies to dogwalkers, nannies, babysitters or anyone else whom you are unable to observe directly. But it also covers employees, customers, etc. And, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the whole population is included.

Perhaps Scott should have titled his article “Has Privacy Become Unattainable?”

One problem of having oversight remotely or in your absence is that with such surveillance comes a responsibility to act if something untoward occurs. There is an argument that says that it is better not to be made aware and to just trust the person that they will do as required. In a sense, it is a comment on the times in which we live that so few appear to be trustworthy that we are resorting to this kind of observation—and it’s not a happy comment.

Yes, you get to shame or prosecute or both someone misbehaving or cheating your pet out of its deserved dog-walking recreation. But is the hassle worth it? And does the world really have to know this? If the transgression is relatively minor and not particularly harmful, would it be such a big deal to let it go? Do we really want our lives cluttered with the detritus of trivial misbehaviors?

In response to the rapid expansion of the COVID-19 pandemic, former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is initiating a project, together with New York State governor, Andrew Cuomo, current NYC mayor, Bill di Blasio, and two adjoining states, to trace those who have had contact with known coronavirus carriers, and to isolate them .. see Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech’s May 1, 2020 article “Cuomo, Bloomberg partner up on coronavirus contact tracing program,” available at https://www.amny.com/coronavirus/cuomo-bloomberg-partner-up-on-coronavirus-contact-tracing-program/ [1]   This is in line with the government approach of test-trace-isolate. The scale of such a project is immense and represents a surveillance program equivalent to that imposed upon its citizens by China. It represents a willingness to give up significant privacy in order to tamp down the pandemic. At this point in time, with the pandemic spreading out at a frightening rate, many seem willing to make the trade of privacy for health. The question is whether, when this need is over, we will return to prior levels of privacy which, though not ideal, are less dangerous than ubiquitous tracking of individual’s whereabouts and contacts. Or will someone come up with governmental and/or commercial reasons to keep the tracking program going?

Again, this is a situation where we need to consider an exit strategy for when surveillance will no longer be a matter of life-and-death. It could turn into an unhealthy oversight of citizens for other purposes, robbing us of our right to be left alone in peace. As with so many Internet arrangements, we opt in for a valid reason, but don’t get the opportunity to opt out when that justification no longer applies. We need to change that.