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Digital data flows and the Covid-19 pandemic – should we be paying more attention?

Digital Data Flows and the COVID-19 Pandemic - should we be paying more attention? 

As a third of the global population experiences some form of lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, people around the world are adapting to new ways of living and working, and looking for radical solutions to live with the virus until some form of immunity develops. Digital technologies and the data they process have been central to this response.

The production and circulation of digital data is constrained by a complex web of deeply politicised social, cultural, legal, economic and technical factors. These constraints – or, “data frictions” - can be beneficial or problematic, and whether a particular friction is one or the other is often subject to significant debate.
Shifts in the nature of data frictions have the potential to influence how societies function at the most fundamental level – they shape the relationship between state and citizens, the management of workers, the creation and distribution of scientific knowledge, cultures of consumption and so on.
The tumultuous times are acting as a lubricant on many existing data frictions, with the potential for long-term implications to the informational base of society. Some examples include:
COVID-19 contact tracing. Despite many of those most vulnerable to COVID-19 also being those less likely to own a smartphone, governments are increasingly looking to COVID-19 contact tracing smartphone apps as a technical solution to help manage the spread of the virus. A variety of apps are already in use in different countries, and in an unusual move to overcome friction in the production and circulation of contact tracing data, Google and Apple are collaborating on a Bluetooth proximity-based approach that ultimately will be distributed via their operating systems, rather than requiring users to download an app. The Bluetooth proximity approach is more privacy preserving than some of the GPS-based location monitoring apps already in circulation. However, as the UK moves closer to widespread adoption of contact tracing, significant questions remain about how effective it can be and what widespread adoption will mean for longer-term use of the underlying surveillance technologies. Legal academic Lillian Edwards and colleagues have shared their draft proposal for new legislation that aims to generate legal friction in the use of such apps and the data they generate.
The rush to model and simulate COVID-19. High-quality simulations and models are vital to understanding and responding to COVID-19 and there have been attempts to reduce existing frictions in scholarly communication by making relevant data and scientific publications open access. However, the sense of urgency regarding the pandemic along with the availability of data and people’s desire to contribute, has led to a plethora of data visualisations and simulations produced by people with no scientific background in epidemiology or other relevant field. These results, often shared online without peer review or transparent methods, have led to confusion and the spread of misinformation. One simulation, for example, claimed to visualise the distribution of droplets from the breath of runners and cyclists, leading to widespread concerns about the spread of COVID-19 through exercise. The visualisation went viral on social media, but has since been criticised as misleading.
Watching our fellow citizens. From the use of police drones, to local neighbourhood Facebook groups and newspaper front pages, the use of digital technology to create and share digital reports that shame fellow citizens for perceived lockdown violations has become a common feature of British public life over the last three weeks. In many cases, this expansion of digital surveillance has come with little reflection on whether those accused may actually be members of the same household, unable to walk without regular rest stops, live in overcrowded or abusive homes or have no outdoor space of their own. While the motivations are understandable, these emergent data flows suggest an unsettlingly authoritarian tendency in the ways some communities and institutions are responding to the crisis, and the gaze as ever is more damaging for the poor, disabled and minorities. 

Monitoring the virtual workplace. Managers in some organisations have perceived the shift to virtual working as a risk for productivity and the credibility of activities that have previously only happened face-to-face. Recent weeks have seen increased efforts to mitigate these perceived risks with remote monitoring technologies, including video recording virtual discussions, monitoring website usage and, in some cases, keyboard strokes. The significant levels of uncertainty faced by organisations has been called upon as the rationale for an opaque and unaccountable expansion of worker surveillance, often with little obvious consideration given to how these digital records will be stored, used and likely abused.

Nothing that we can observe here is radically new. These practices are all familiar, and in certain contexts already relatively normalised. Despite this, what is notable at this moment is the lack of scrutiny being directed at this jolt to existing data frictions that had evolved over time through a complex web of politicised processes; a lack of scrutiny that is enabled by the variety of changes, the speed at which they are happening and perceptions of how important such concerns are relative to other pressing issues. 
Time will tell if any of these changes will be temporary and gradually dissipate once the crisis is over, or if they will lead to the normalisation of new modes of digital data production and circulation with potentially problematic consequences for human rights and freedoms. 
What can be confidently concluded is that while for many people issues of informational politics may seem to be of reduced importance given the challenges and urgency of the current circumstances, we will be living with the repercussions of today’s data practices and policy decisions for years, potentially generations, to come.
Dr Jo Bates

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