Veillance Final: Coronavirus and Surveillance

Intro

Final assignment. We had a free choice as to what to focus on. I chose to make a survey regarding the current coronavirus crisis and its impact on surveillance. We have discussed a lot of different topics in class. Many new revelations, like learning about the facebook pixel and how much (!) data is being sold through each and every app installed, made me question myself plethora of times.

Our class, including our professor, consisted of five people in total. Surprisingly, that was enough number of people to discuss topics from multiple angles. Conversations rarely got stuck on an identical point of view. This is why I wanted to conduct a survey – to see how other people would react.

The topic at hand is an important one. Before the tragic 9/11 attack we did not have TSA and we did not have Patriot Act. Many, including the likes of Edward Snowden, speculate that the current COVID-19 crisis, also known as the coronavirus, may push world’s governments’ surveillance capabilities further. It’s an interesting and morally challenging topic. Should we introduce more surveillance into our daily lives to prevent the spread of COVID-19, or should we slow down and think through the ramifications first?

Process

In the spirit of online learning I decided to conduct an online survey using the Qualtrics software. In about three full days I collected 13 responses. Some facts about this survey:

  • Shared primarily to fellow ITP socials
  • Did not collect any identifying info
  • Qualtrics collected everyone’s IP address
  • 12 of the participants are from NYC; 1 from Kyoto, Japan
  • Collected over three days; it was voluntary
  • Avoided including any bias to my best ability
  • Text answers were voluntary

Ideally, I was hoping for at least 35-50 responses. Due to the low amount of responses (and other methodological reasons) I am not going to draw any overarching conclusions on society as a whole. Instead, I am going to go through every question asked and assess the data collected.

Questions 1-4

The first part of the survey is directed at implementation of surveillance systems for coronavirus tracking purposes.

Q1 “Would you be OK with the government collecting your location/identity data to combat COVID-19?”

This question is the very topic of this survey. Majority selected ‘Maybe’. One of the unsure respondents says:

“There must be a happy medium between unchecked data collection and no data collection. Could there be a guaranteed data deletion after a certain period, etc”

Another said:

If it were somehow obfuscated

The above responses matched well with Question 2:

Q2 “What if the government stored your data only temporarily (0-6 months)?”

It seems that even if it’s temporary respondents are still unsure. There seems to be some level of distrust present.

Q3 “Would you be OK with a private entity (company/corporation) collecting your location/identity data to combat COVID-19?”

This question was posed by me to see if people trust private entities more than the government or vice versa. My expectation was that private entities would be trusted more, but it turns out that majority of respondents are leaning more towards ‘No’.

1 Yes, 5 Maybe, 7 No

One respondent commented:

Same answer as above, I potentially would trust a private entity more than the gvt, but with surveillance contracts being handed out like candy, I feel that the most nefarious private entities would see this as an opportunity to get dat government paycheck.

Q4 What if that private entity stored your data only temporarily (0-6 months) for COVID-19 purposes?

When asked if it was temporary, not much changed once again

Questions 5-6

Here I wanted to essentially ask Q1 once again, but in a slightly different manner. After all, I did not present any data or article that I might have read. Our understanding of certain words can differ in a variety of ways.

Q5 Do you think there should be a nation-wide surveillance system during a crisis like COVID-19?

After seeing the responses to Q1, seeing an overwhelming ‘No’ to a nation-wide surveillance system was eyebrow raising. It seems that the interpretation of “location/identifying data” and “nation-wide surveillance system” creates a distinctly different image.

Q6 Do you think there should be a local surveillance system during a crisis like COVID-19? (local can mean anything from a small borough to a small town)

When asked about a local surveillance system, respondents were a bit more keen.

Perhaps the respondents are more attracted towards their local communities.

Questions 7-8

These two questions pertain to apps specifically. People like apps more than websites these days because certain businesses/services operate better on an app. “There is an app for that!”

Q7 Would you support a government sponsored app that is designed to track you for COVID-19, but your participation was voluntary?

One respondent stated:

Depends on the tech and data regulation, gotta be temporary

There is hesitancy there, but overall it’s in the unsure zone.

Q8 Would you support a government sponsored app that is designed to track you for COVID-19 and your participation is mandatory?

In contrast, the “mandatory” aspect threw the majority into the negative zone.

Question 9

This question aimed to check if “non-profit” could garner more positive responses compared to “government” or “private entity”

Q9 Would you participate in a surveillance system for COVID-19 that is conducted by a non-profit organization with no ties to the government or any private entities?

Another largely unsure response. One respondent commented:

If the organization was completely disassembled after the crisis

Questions 10-12

These questions are all about facial recognition. One of my classmates was curious about this and I agree that it’s an interesting topic of discussion.

Q10 Would you be OK if the government implemented a facial recognition monitoring system for COVID-19 that could identify you and measure your temperature?

None of the respondents was OK with a facial recognition system set up by the government.

Q11 Would you be OK if private entities (companies/corporations) implemented a facial recognition monitoring system for COVID-19 that could identify you and measure your temperature?

Identically, no one was down with private entities implementing a facial recognition system.

Q12 Would you install a facial recognition monitoring system that could identify you and measure your temperature at your home?

Not a huge change, but at least one respondent switch over to the yes land.

Across three questions, majority seem to be against facial recognition.

Questions 13-17

The second part of this survey focuses on general sentiments regarding coronavirus. I wanted to gauge how the responses to the first 12 questions would compare to something very specific, very real.

Q13 Would you feel safe to go out of quarantine in the next month or two?

A lot of depends, not very surprising. It seems that it doesn’t feel safe yet. One respondent says:

Depends on the rollout.

Q14 Do you want to get out of quarantine in the next month or two?

Quite the contrast from the previous question. This sentiment shared by one of the respondents summarizes it poetically:

Fucking duh

Q15 Please indicate your level of happiness before and during coronavirus from 1 to 5 stars, (1 star = very low, 5 stars = very high)

Instead of showing everyone’s individual happiness level I decided that I should show the mean average :

Q16 Please indicate your level of safety before and during coronavirus from 1 to 5 stars, (1 star = very low, 5 stars = very high)

Similar trend for the safety level as well.

Q17 Please indicate your level of privacy before and during coronavirus from 1 to 5 stars, (1 star = very low, 5 stars = very high)

Respondents feel generally the same level of privacy. The level is a little higher During Coronavirus, but that was expected due to social distancing and self-isolation. Surprised that it’s not higher.

Questions 18-24

The third and final part of the survey focuses on privacy questions. Initially this section used to be in the beginning, but after hearing some advice I put towards the end. It’s not the exact subject of this survey, but it pertains to it. I was curious to see the general attitude towards privacy.

Q18 Do you consider yourself a private person?

A very equal split between people who consider themselves private and not.

Q19 Do you worry about your privacy?

However, when it comes to worrying about privacy majority lean into the “yes” side.

Q20 Do you have a rich social media presence? (Are you active and/or on a lot of platforms?)

It’s quite a humble group of respondents.

Q21 Do you wish for more privacy options on your devices?

It’s clear that majority want more privacy options. More options are never too bad, unless of course they are complicated and abundant on purpose.

Q22 Do surveillance cameras make you feel more or less safe?

This is one of those grey topics. I would say that the above graphic is what it feels like discussing most things that have to do with surveillance. Some things are hard to pinpoint without concrete evidence or effect that can be seen or felt. Surveillance cameras are everywhere and we are probably desensitized to them. We assume that it’s the government watching, but there are also countless cameras that are owned by private businesses or individuals. We never truly know who or what and when.

Q23 Does Alexa, Siri, Cortana, etc., make you feel more or less safe?

When it comes to concrete examples we can see a more definitive opinion. Here we can see that by asking about specific products (and generally knowing their manufacturers mainly because they are mega-corps) we get more sure answers.

Q24 Does Alexa, Siri, Cortana, etc., make you feel more or less private?

I wonder why safety has more respondents leaning toward ‘neither’ rather than ‘less’ compared to this question regarding privacy.

Overall the privacy section seems to indicate that the respondents deem privacy important and want more tools/options to ensure it.

Conclusion

As I stated previously I do not intend to make any overarching conclusions. I am not even going to attempt to answer the question I posed in the Intro section of this blog post. What seems evident to me is that a system that helps us navigate through this crisis would probably alleviate a lot of the worries and stress that people have. As of the writing of this post there are 1,234,351 confirmed cases in the United States with 72,023 dead. Worldwide there are 3,662,101 confirmed cases and 257,207 dead.

The situation is dire, but is it dire enough to give up our privacy? The respondents indicate that they are already concerned with privacy. Therefore, can we even trust any entity, government or otherwise, to handle it with care when currently our privacy isn’t exactly being protected? These are the questions I am going to keep pondering about. Eventually, however, something will need to be done. The respondents in this survey are not all completely against a functioning system that they can trust. A lot of it “depends” on trust and the way we enable such a system.

Acknowledgements

  • Thanks to everyone who participated, I don’t know who you are
  • Thank you to the whole Veillance crew, including the professor
  • I am going to miss our Wednesday afternoons
  • I realize that the survey isn’t extensive enough
  • I understand that my wording could have influenced a lot of factors
  • I recognize that by selecting “yes”, “maybe”, “no” the respondents weren’t able to give full responses and that the way I interpret the data matters

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