Description: The digital age is all about big data, which is helping the world fight back against COVID-19 today. But with such vast quantities of data, is it safe?
“Who will guard the guardians”? This small sentence carries significant weight and has carried it for as far back as Ancient Rome. A First-Century Roman poet by the name of Juvenal can be credited for crystallizing such a formidable idea so succinctly. Human beings have evolved over millennia to be social creatures.
This may have been a necessity in the early days, battling hostile landscapes and monstrous animals with primitive tools. Early humans realized safety lay in numbers, and so the first societies were born. And inevitably, as in any society, leaders would arise.
Whether by popular vote, stark violence, or even more covert means, leaders began to emerge in these societies, shaping them to their own will. Is this the case today, even as we are amid an unprecedented pandemic?
How Dangerous is Big Data in the Fight Against COVID?
While we may have evolved far beyond what our primitive ancestors could ever imagine, certain evolutionary traits have entrenched themselves deeply in our lives. We are still deeply social beings, which is why most of our advancements are built around communication technology.
The telegram, the telephone, the radio, the TV, the smartphone, social media, and modern-day Spectrum internet all point to our obvious need to communicate and socialize.
The digital age has made many wonders possible, like instant video calls, private messaging apps, text-to-voice communication software, and much more. And most of these inventions are fairly recent for a reason. It took tech players almost a decade to accumulate enough data to make use of it. And therein lies the problem. The data.
Whistleblowers like Edward Snowden warned early on that the internet was not as secure a place as everyone thought it was. Most of what we call the shallow net is monitored and tracked by websites, companies, search engines, and browsers. All of them accumulate data, and almost all of them get you to agree to give them free use of the data they collect on you.
It’s really not a big leap of faith to think that governments can’t be accumulating data on you along with all these other players. And even if they aren’t, do you really think anything is stopping them from buying it?
And even if a company refuses to sell your data to third-parties, what if the company merges with another corporation down the road that has no problems selling your data? You probably begin to see the problem.
Big data is all the rage, absorbing unprecedented volumes of data from innumerable sources. It is fitting that this technology be used against the unprecedented pandemic, but is it actually safe in the long term, given the following use cases:
Modern-Day Smart Surveillance Technology
Smart living has been up and coming for some time now. Most people are familiar with the Internet of Things, and how it uses smarter versions of conventionally “dumb” devices such as sensors, doorbells, cameras, and thermostats to collect data.
Your smart home will then make use of this data and make the necessary changes to make your daily life more comfortable and efficient. The concept can be applied to a much larger scale, as in a whole city, or a smart city, as we call it.
So we have an entire city with hundreds if not millions of cameras, sensors, microphones, and other inputs designed to absorb as much data as possible. The smart city will then adjust things like waste management, public lighting, crime control, etc. based on the data acquired.
Most city governments have some form of surveillance system in place. Usually, these are either used to track criminal activity or to track traffic violations. During COVID-19, several countries utilized these systems to track potentially infected people and identify any hotspots where the virus was particularly rampant.
This is great news and a worthy example of using modern solutions to address unusual problems. However, what about the data being stored during this time? What about the data cities already have stored on their citizens? The idea of being constantly watched, monitored, and tracked is appealing to nearly nobody, and the possible misuse of this data can’t follow too far behind.
Exposure and Contact Tracing
Modern-day smartphones are a permanent fixture in our lives. We use them all the time to access entertainment content, music platforms, streaming apps, and social media apps. All of which collect data on you, again with your explicit approval.
The idea is that smartphones and apps share this data with the companies that made them and allow them to further improve customer experiences such as by showing more relevant search results or ads. Among other things, smartphones collect and transmit location data.
The availability of location data has allowed many governments to catch up with the spread of the virus to a large degree. Using location tracking data and identifying trends and overlaps, they have been able to trace the contact history of people who test positive for the virus.
This allowed many of them to reach out to any people who may have come into close contact with the infected person based on their location data. As a result, many were able to isolate in time, reducing further spread.
Again, the location data proved successful to a large degree in terms of curtailing the spread of COVID-19. But once the virus hopefully dies down, the thought of being monitored by a third-party, whether a government or a private firm, without any valid reason will seem a lot less palatable. It’s not about wanting to hide one’s movement to commit crimes more easily. It is more a reaction to an infringement on our right to movement.
DNA Samples from Major Parts of the Population
The Human Genome Project set out decades ago to completely sequence and analyze human DNA. DNA is at its most basic, a strand of information or code or data. The project is one of humankind’s greatest efforts to understand our origins and ourselves on a fundamental level.
It has made several breakthroughs, such as isolating specific genes that cause cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other hereditary problems. The project even managed to isolate a gene present in all humans that is thought to trigger death, opening up new questions as to whether death is a hereditary failing that can be possibly deactivated.
The Human Genome Project is built on immeasurable volumes of data. The average strand of human DNA contains millions of bits of information. It is the original data storage and transfer mechanism, one designed over billions of years of evolution.
Fast-forward to today in 2020. A nasal or saliva swab has proven to be one of the most effective ways to safely test for COVID-19 in both people who have symptoms as well as those who don’t exhibit any obvious ones. The swab is meant to collect a DNA sample, which is then broken down and analyzed for any problems, in this case, the presence of the COVID-19 virus.
At the time of this writing, over 180 million tests have been carried out in the United States alone. Hundreds of millions of tests have been conducted elsewhere across the world, many of them by privately-owned laboratories.
While the labs may not hold on to the DNA sample for more than necessary, it will likely still hold on to the data collected. As it stands, this data helps the healthcare systems pool data and use AI and ML to identify trends, high-risk population segments, aggravating or mitigating factors, trajectories, and possible immunities.
But DNA information on vast segments of the population holds far more than just medical value in the long-term. Many governments, such as those in large totalitarian states, may already be compiling DNA databases on their populations without us any the wiser.
A sobering thought, considering your DNA is essentially a blueprint of you, that identifies you via genetic markers far more intricately than a fingerprint. And it may already be in someone else’s hands. We’ve all seen enough sci-fi Spectrum TV to understand this does not necessarily end well. Data, it seems, is a double-edged sword, and while it helps us now against the pandemic, it may eventually lead to us living in a world right out of George Orwell’s 1984.