Since the early months of 2020 and the WHO’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, governments worldwide have declared national states of emergency and the pandemic has placed a significant burden on global health infrastructures, especially in contexts with existing constraints of infrastructural or institutional weaknesses.

In this climate, global tech giants have found a fruitful market of opportunity for partnering with governments to build substantial profit-generating surveillance technologies.  Data Justice and COVID-19: Global Perspectives (edited by Linnet Taylor, Gargi Sharma, Aaron Martin and Shazade Jameson and published by Meatspace Press, 2020),  as powerfully synthesised by the editors, is “an account of what happened next”.

The book leverages the concept of data justice as “fairness in the way people are made visible, represented and treated as a result of their production of digital data”. In the turn to digital tools for epidemiological surveillance, which has seen the increased use of hybrid public-private systems in response to emergencies, the notion of data justice serves as a useful conceptual tool to navigate the consequences of such systems. Looking at the experiences of 33 countries discussed in eight commentaries that highlight core themes in the national cases, the book navigates what happened in the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 emergency, illuminating forms of data injustice that stem from the public-private hybrids of COVID-19 response. In doing so, it offers a global picture of the first pandemic of the datafied society, taken from the transversal angle of data injustices.

The concepts of function creep and market-making, highlighted in the editors’ introduction to the book, act as theoretical devices to understand a post-pandemic world. Function creep, understood as the repurposing of existing digital systems to track, predict and influence, illuminates how governments and tech giants (increasingly while working together) have consciously repurposed existing technologies in rapid operations where principles of data governance, as observed in the book’s national dispatches, often remain a mystery. Emerging from the opportunity created by the pandemic, market-making has given global private software developers the opportunity to sell their products in rapid deals justified by urgent and diffused states of emergency.

COVID-19 Responses: Five Core Threads

The book maps data-driven responses to the pandemic across different countries, using data justice, function creep and market-making as core analytical lenses. Across the cases, at least five themes guide the collection and reinforce each other in answering the question, what do global COVID-19 responses mean for data justice?

  1. The hybrids of COVID-19. What are the public-private hybrids that emerged during the pandemic that structure responses at the national level? Through the country dispatches, the book illustrates many cases of public-private partnerships aimed at building disease surveillance systems. Spanning from Facebook’s partnership with the Australian government, to Amazon’s with Canadian institutions, or the emerging uptake of Palantir’s Foundry in Germany’s Hesse district, the book illustrates the formation of public-private hybrids where tech giants exert substantial influence, creating uncertain balances of private interests with public health needs. A twofold institutional logic, where tech giant profits accompany epidemiological surveillance, problematises the real objectives of COVID-19 tracking apps, forming the essential basis for the injustices detailed in the book.
  2. The data protection consequences of hybrids. Despite the long history of tracking systems in disease surveillance, the emergency-dictated need for rapid and immediate (rather than data-secure) solutions has been the basis for the public-private partnerships (PPPs) at the heart of this book. The stories narrated in the dispatches demonstrate the problems of public-private hybrids, where the effectiveness of the private sector becomes prioritised due to emergency. Weak or non-existent data protection laws in many contexts intersect with the problem. These PPPs often mean that private companies arise as guarantors of post-pandemic justice, but leave unanswered questions about who is in controls of the data.
  3. Technology and abuse of power. The book’s central theme on power asymmetries reinforces Winner’s argument that artefacts have politics and embody such politics in practice. But the stories narrated in the book go beyond power asymmetries between owners and non-owners of crucial data. It explores injustices lived by Indigenous Peoples in North America, or Argentina’s impoverished communities, and actions of military regimes in the Philippines and Hungary, for example. These cases illustrate how power asymmetry is translated into abuse, once again justified and legitimised by emergency status. While technology’s ability to crystallise existing forms of power abuse comes as no surprise to most of us, the book’s dispatches show the extreme consequences of using data as means of military governance in a pandemic.
  4. The perpetuation of invisibilities and inequalities. As Alison Powell noted in a previous post, to be seen we must be measured. In the pandemic, the undue inclusions of technology are as notable as its undue exclusions, where the excluded are those made invisible by new forms of datafication. In the book’s Brazil dispatch, for example, we see how emergency social protection systems exclude exactly those poorer communities whose vulnerability has already been heightened in the crisis. Across these stories, what remains firm is the theme of perpetuated invisibilities: country narratives arise as an account of how inequalities are exacerbated, rather than challenged or mitigated, by new technologies.
  5. The redistributional effects of COVID-19. Effects of the pandemic transcend the severe burden borne by healthcare systems, exacerbating risks for the economically poor. Beyond the data injustices of the COVID-19 hybrids, the book offers a picture of redistributional effects across geographies, showing how vulnerable communities are suffering the effects of the pandemic. The book’s country dispatches illustrate how COVID-19 restrictions are disproportionately affecting the socially and economically worse off (often via technologies). Beyond the role of technology, the book offers a picture of these realities, and of the perpetuation of forms of injustice that become crystallised during the pandemic.

Overall, the book questions ‘technological solutionism’: the idea that technology can solve all our problems. For example, it challenges the tech-deterministic view that construes mobile tracking apps as problem solvers. In many of the cases reviewed here, technological solutionism has emerged explicitly, in others it has been less obvious within the diffusion of COVID-19 tracking systems. The whole book, however, invites a search for alternatives to technological solutionism to understand how disease tracking can be enacted in ways that don’t involve data injustices nor finalistic profit-making mechanisms.

Dr Silvia Masiero is an Associate Professor of Information Systems at the University of Oslo, Department of Informatics. Her research focuses on the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the field of socio-economic development

This post originally appeared on the LSE Media Policy Project blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks