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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Dear Aarogya Setu, use me well and help me trust you

We aren’t just individuals but also the herd and our anonymous private data is a public resource

What do you call surveillance when it is used for a good cause? Surveillance. But then you don’t like that word, so it is now called “tracking", or even better, “tracing". In time, these words too will acquire infamy, just like how the various innocuous, and even celebratory, words for Dalits are condemned in time.

A few days ago, the Indian government released a tracking app called Aarogya Setu that will help you identify how far you are from a person who has acquired covid. You diagnose yourself by truthfully answering some easy questions and let the app spot your live location.

One strand of response was predictable the moment the app emerged—there was hysteria over something broadly and loosely called “privacy". Rahul Gandhi, for some reason, employed alliteration when he called it a “sophisticated surveillance system". He did not realize he was, in reality, praising the app because its whole point is to track or trace, or surveil the live locations of millions of Indians. Across the world, governments released similar apps. Israel used an anti-terror surveillance tool to trace the movements of civilians. Britain said it will modify a proper surveillance app to make it more palatable for its people. In reality, what it modified was the language used to describe the app. More “tracing" than “surveillance".

Among the most successfully transmitted fears of our age is the idea that our information, however banal, useless and freely available it might be, can be misused by some shady entity, usually the government or a corporation. It’s an ancient fear that was evident even during the early days of census collection in Britain.

Our pandemic has confused many proponents of this paranoia because the way mobile data has been used to fight covid-19 has emphasized the truth that the private information of a huge number of people is a public resource.

Today, an average human radiates information. Some scientists say thousands of meaningful data points can emanate from a single person going somewhere with his mobile phone. Millions of people, taken together, radiate an extraordinary number of behavioural patterns. We are both individuals and units in a crowd, both beings and a species. We have faces, but we are also faceless. We have rights as a face, we have duties as the faceless.

Most collective data of people going about their lives is faceless, innocuous, anonymous and this information is immensely useful for those who wish to provide services—like governments and corporations. Google Maps, for instance, knows so much about traffic and the best routes because it knows exactly where millions of people are.

Not everyone is comfortable with all this. Some speak in terms of liberty, which they confuse with “freedom". (Liberty is restricted freedom granted by a society, an individual freedom that is subordinate to collective rights and duties.) This lot is unable to perceive its own megalomanic self-absorption, which it couches as idealism. There are others who have a more reasonable concern—that access to such information can be misused to identify an individual; or that lazy software could get hacked.

Some scientists believe that there is no such thing as anonymous data. Two years ago, a group of researchers studied two sets of anonymized information of people in Singapore—phone logs and location stamps in its metro transit system. By overlapping these two sets, they could isolate data that aligned almost perfectly, thereby unmasking a person, his location and journeys.

These are not trivial concerns. And governments and corporations recognize that in their self-interest, they must invest a lot in guarding privacy, or they will lose the cooperation of people. There is still much that powerful politicians and political parties need to realize. A strongman image may have many benefits, for example, but it is harder for such a leader to sell the idea of innocuous data to his people.

Even so, there is a villainous quality to the persistent whines about privacy orchestrated by bleak, paranoid activists. They have successfully defamed the idea of collective data as a common good. In fact, it took an extraordinary pandemic to bring tracking back into mainstream respectability.

Two recent stories in the The New York Times trace the emotional shift. As recently as in January this year, the newspaper ran an opinion piece that argued, “Surveillance capitalists control the science and the scientists, the secrets and the truth." Writers and reporters for the paper will continue to make such arguments, but what is interesting is that towards the end of March, it carried a feature that explained, using mobile phone data of air travellers, how the virus got out of China. “We analysed the movements of hundreds of millions of people," the paper said without any trace of righteous indignation at itself for using mobile phone records to unmask a strand of truth.

“Privacy" is a potent word. It draws its power from our perception that we are the centre of our universe. People who see the greater common good in the collation and public use of community data should invent a new word to counter the potency of “privacy", a word that conveys that we are not individuals all the time, or deserve to be filled with the self-importance of our petty lives. A word that will remind us that we are also a part of the herd, that we are also simply data. I propose the word “humility".

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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