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Collective Obscura as a response to the
post-covid era of surveillance

April 29, 2020

We developed our project Collective Obscura to contribute to a widening conversation about the ubiquity of surveillance and biometric systems. Our goal is to explore affordable and accessible ways to empower people to subvert technologies of capture in their everyday lives. The fight for privacy remains important to us, especially now amidst a global pandemic. The emergency catalyzed by the COVID-19 virus has intensified pre-existing social problems and revealed widespread parities in access to basic needs. Marginalized communities have been made more vulnerable to illness, food and housing insecurity, as well as policing and surveillance. It is during times of heightened crisis that we must be particularly vigilant against the privatization of public safety. These moments are often leveraged by large corporations to extend their power and reach under the veneer of necessity and service.

Across the globe, technology companies are racing to adapt existing surveillance systems and devices to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. In Russia, facial recognition systems have been deployed to track individuals who violate shelter-in-place orders. Here in the U.S., tech giants Google and Apple announced that the companies would collaborate on a tool that uses Bluetooth technology to notify smartphone users when they have been in contact with or proximate to an affected person. Various tracking mechanisms have been utilized throughout Asia in countries such as China, Singapore, and South Korea. All these practices exemplify what Shoshana Zuboff refers to as surveillance capitalism.

Zuboff writes that “[s]urveillance capitalism unilaterally claims human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data” (p. 8). While some of this collected information is used for the improvement of products and services, a portion of the data is “declared as a proprietary behavioral surplus” to be extrapolated and traded in the marketplace (ibid, original emphasis). In other words, contemporary practices of widespread data collection extract valuable information from our everyday choices and experiences to ultimately predict and coerce behavior. So while companies purport themselves to be designing technical strategies to curb the virus, it is important to consider what the unintended consequences of such approaches are and how the perfect location tracking of the world’s population will impact our right to privacy.

To put it more clearly, technologies of surveillance—and the data they capture— that are being considered as useful tools during our global emergency (e.g. facial recognition software that detects people who violate self-quarantine orders) might be put to different and extensive uses beyond the pandemic.

We must continue to demand technology that protects privacy, security, and democracy rather than undermine them. The response to an unprecedented global pandemic should not be an intensification of surveillance, policing and infringement of privacy but access to affordable healthcare, food, and housing for all.