China’s Social Credit system is incredibly dystopian, however for anyone in power seeking to control the masses it may become a model for how to achieve lasting control in the 21st century.
As those of us in the west attempt to get our arms around COVID-19 there’s a huge risk that our would-be saviors turn out to be our next big problem.
Contact Tracing and the “Opt-In” Problem
If you haven’t heard yet, Apple and Google have announced plans to partner on a COVID-19 contact tracing (CT) method that leverages individuals’ smartphones to communicate with public health officials.
First, in May, both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.
Second, in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms. This is a more robust solution than an API and would allow more individuals to participate, if they choose to opt in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.
Apple press release
Therein lies the rub… users are going to have to “opt-in”. Initially especially, people are going to need to download an app that isn’t on their device currently. Getting people to download something new and amazing is difficult enough; add in health data and privacy concerns over a very controversial and highly politicized public issue… the odds of engagement go down even further.
So Apple and Google are going to need to come up with incentives to drive opt-ins.
Incentives Change the Service
Once you start incentivizing users, everything shifts. If you’re Apple for example, you can do a lot to drive downloads. You could offer free months of Apple Music, free downloads of movies on the Apple store, app store gift cards, etc. Digital content is pretty easy to give away.
But you’re going to still need to do a huge marketing campaign with celebrities, influencers, and politicians across the globe to build awareness and public confidence in the platform. It is going to be one of the biggest ever undertakings in tech if they want it to actually work.
Separating the Good from the Bad
As momentum builds though, and enough people are downloading and using it, the tone could begin to shift. The big tech companies would be able to flex their muscles and begin not only incentivizing their users to give more data, but shame those who are not in the program yet. After all, those who have agreed to give these big tech companies and the government their data are doing a public service. They are the good people who are helping America (insert your country here). Right?
Those who aren’t however, well, they might be part of the problem. They might be the people spreading disease, causing businesses trouble, and so on. We’ll be told to keep those people away from the good, healthy people.
These questions are already being asked on financial news networks:
- Should an airline allow a non-CT-user to fly?
- Would UBER allow a non-CT-user to hail a ride?
- Will you be able to swipe to get on a bus, train, subway or any public transportation if you don’t pass the CT-check?
- Could you walk into a store without scanning first to indicate that you’re “healthy”?
- Would a child be allowed in school or daycare if they aren’t being traced?
The list goes on and on. How could such a service do its job of isolating unhealthy people from the general population? It has to assume that anyone not using it could be a threat.
A Corporate Social Credit System
And because some people would still be refusing to opt-in, they really wouldn’t deserve the next round of perks that are going to be offered to all of the users…
Google would be positioned by then to potentially offer more competitive pricing on GSuite for businesses whose employees are on the app, free or reduced rides through Waymo, etc.
Since Apple has a great partnership with Goldman Sachs with Apple Pay, they might expand from credit cards start to offer Contact Tracing users better rates on credit card purchases but also more favorable loans and mortgages. The entire financial services sector could begin to shift to use this new form of social credit similarly to how they currently use a traditional credit score.
Some kind of formal CT-app score could emerge, determined by big-tech, rather than a government like China, determining the quality of user/citizen you are. And while it may have started with COVID-19, by that point it will have many more data-points rolled into it for better or worse as these companies are able to really define who you are as a person in the digital sense, integrating your shopping history, medical records, fitness trackers, social media behaviors, search history, etc. If it sounds like an episode of Black Mirror, I’m sorry… but that’s where we are heading.
These giant, highly diverse tech companies will have endless opportunities to leverage the massive data that’s being handed over to them in the middle of a pandemic to undercut their competitors and strengthen their market positions.
And they could do that all while comparatively raising the cost of living for those who have not opted in to contact tracing. Constantly making it as difficult as possible to live off of their system.
A Word of Caution
After 9/11 we were quick to exchange freedom for protection and George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law on October 26, 2001. I fear that we may be making a similar mistake now by rushing to give big tech way too much of our data in the midst of a crisis.
An IEEE Spectrum report argues, “This data should not be used for marketing, commercial gain, or law enforcement. It shouldn’t even be used for research outside of public health.”
Update: September 28, 2020
In this article, 9to5Mac cites Joshua Gans, Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto, as suggesting the following:
- Ironically, the contact tracing apps themselves need a push to “go viral”. Incentives should be considered.
- “Imagine a company with rewards points — like credit cards, airlines , and supermarkets — offering bonus points for anyone installing the app. This might require some software but it could also be done at points of sale or upon delivery of your meals, with humans verifying an app install. Or maybe Apple or Google could offer incentives right in their app stores.”
- He even suggests that those who participate in contact tracing apps should have vaccine priority.
- And that schools should reverse any policy which bans the use of smartphones during school so that contact tracing via smartphone becomes possible through these apps.