The heretic reports from Kyoto. “Japan seems like a good place to weather the storm,” Maciej Cegłowski says via Skype about the corona pandemic and the reactions to his idea. The Polish-American entrepreneur and web designer remotely watches what his outrage has done.
“Some call me naive, and the rest call me a fascist,” he says, looking relaxed and cheerful. With his essay under the heading “We need a massive surveillance program” he continued to fuel a smoldering debate: What if the state and the digital industry merge their surveillance systems to defeat the virus? “Yes, an involuntary, intrusive, terrible government surveillance program,” says Cegłowski with his own irony.
Cegłowski founded Pinboard in 2009, a simple and popular bookmark service. Anyone who finds something interesting online can easily archive it with Pinboard and share it with others. The service is financed through a subscription model.
In the fight against the corona virus, the 44-year-old believes that people should temporarily give up their basic rights: “We have never had the ability to track people’s movements very, very closely during an epidemic.” The smartphone as a direction finder, which knows the whereabouts of its owner at all times – what critics have always described as a horror scenario – is now an opportunity for Cegłowski: “This trace would then be shared with a health authority that also carries out extensive tests on the population. ” The authorities could use the data to check with whom the paths of clearly infected people have overlapped in the past few days and inform these people via SMS about measures such as testing or quarantine.
“I say this with clenched teeth because I don’t like surveillance and I don’t trust this US government at all,” said Trump’s opponent Cegłowski. The fact that his ideas frighten the international community of digital data protectionists is also due to the fact that he was always their ally. He is one of the free spirits in the tech industry – long before every second person who designed a new click button on Facebook publicly opposed his former employer. Cegłowski says: “My one-man company gives me the freedom to criticize the big tech companies without having to worry about making a living.” The exponential increase in infections is now forcing him to put his previous beliefs to the test.
Other authors, such as the historian Yuval Noah Harari, see the development that governments are using the crisis to install even more comprehensive surveillance systems much more negatively: “Immature, even dangerous, technologies are being put on us because the risks of doing nothing are even greater. Whole countries serve as a guinea pig in large-scale social experiments, “he wrote in the Financial Times.
A central database at the state – with data from Google & Co.
Harari cites his homeland Israel as a deterrent example. The state is currently using high technology and secret service methods to monitor the quarantine of the citizens. Cegłowski, on the other hand, sees Israel, but also Taiwan’s use of big data and cell phone tracking to precisely record infected people, as a role model – if you also got the US companies on board: “Internet and mobile phone providers, however Google and Apple also have detailed residence histories of everyone who carries a cell phone with them. ” The data collection even had to be expanded. Thanks to their advertising systems, Facebook and Google in particular have gigantic amounts of data about people and can address them precisely, which the companies use primarily for advertisements. “I think that the fight against Corona would finally be a good use of the massive surveillance apparatus that we built. Instead of selling shoes or skin cream to people, we can use it to save lives and restart the economy.”
The core of the system is there, but in private hands. For this reason, there should be a central database at epidemic or disaster control authorities that combines this data.
Would people in western democracies accept being screened like this? “They already accept much sharper cuts in their rights. Freedom of assembly is massively restricted by the barriers,” says Cegłowski. He considers the previous handling of privacy in the West to be hypocrisy. “It’s ridiculous that we accept this surveillance network for commercial and political advertising, but we don’t want to use it to save lives.”
A deal with the state
However, Cegłowski still mitigates his demand for total emergency monitoring. First, it must be limited in time. “If the house is on fire, the fire brigade is also allowed to kick in the door, knowing that if it doesn’t go on, they would never dare.”
He imagines a kind of deal with the state: in the fight against the virus, people give up their privacy. Then, when Covid-19 is defeated, they should be better protected by law from snooping by tech companies. “If we give the state such emergency rights, we should raise the price.”
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After the state of emergency, data on people’s behavior, for example, should only be allowed to be stored for a few weeks – wherever they are, which search terms they enter, what their blood pressure is, in short: “all the stuff that companies reap”. Buying and reselling data would have to be massively restricted. The current EU General Data Protection Regulation is too weak, the US laws anyway.
Whether health protection beats data protection has been a hot topic in Germany – one of the countries in which two dictatorships have an effect – since Telekom made the movement data of its users available to the Robert Koch Institute. However, this data is anonymized.
Cegłowski initially sees his essay as food for thought. “I’m looking forward to a good debate with everyone who doesn’t just insult me as a fascist.”