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Digital immunity certificates, coronavirus and Big Data

01 May, 2020 — Dr Andy Farnell

Video at: https://youtu.be/mxkWqNVpFWo

I decided to come out today down to a secret and deserted beach, and find a place where I can hear the waves.

It's very relaxing after several weeks in the trenches dealing with a lot of production and cybersecurity issues. I don't know if you guys are aware or how much this is common knowledge, but we're actually under a fairly sustained attack at the moment, for cyber security during the pandemic. A lot of enemies have decided to take advantage of this period of weakness. So as well as the rest of the normal shit-show there's also cyber attacks on the supply chain, and believe it or not on our hospitals.

The NHS is actually under attack again. So how about a shout for all the frontline workers that you don't see wearing face masks, not actually in public facing positions... there's a lot of people working very hard to keep things functioning behind the scenes, in the telecommunications and in cyber-defense.

Okay, so today I'm going to speak to Daniel James's question which he's asked Kate and I to have a look at. One that he feels was systematically ignored by the bioethics conference. I think it was ignored principally because it's just too hard. It's a difficult question. It's certainly not a question that fits into a soundbite culture, and perhaps to criticize Daniel a little bit, I do think it's a bit of a loaded question.

There's a lot to unpack from this, and so actually what I'm going to do is unpack the question into several smaller chunks, and then address each one of these, and see whether I can connect that together at the end.

The first would be; whether or not tests for the C19 really are difficult to conduct, if they are expensive, and whether or not we can expect to have cheap and widely available testing, the kind of thing that you'd buy from a pharmacy in a fairly short time scale. Now obviously I'm not a biochemist, but it does seem entirely plausible that kits costing about a tenner, that could be used by any ordinary person should in principle be something that you could manufacture and have widely available.

The temptation then is to think that what is blocking this is the Big Pharma, the big drug companies and their patent portfolios, and their general unwillingness to participate in the production of such products. That may be completely unfair, I really don't know much about that so I'm going to go forward under the assumption that cheap practical testing is indeed possible and should be available within six months to a year.

The question then remains about the use of digital certificates of some kind to certify whether or not somebody is tested positive for the virus and whether or not it's practical and ethical to use those for managing return to work. I think this problem is made difficult by the fact that really only about 20% of the general public are aware of what those of us who work in security engineering, cyber-security and hacking, see as a problem. It's not really understood. I'm gonna use the Joel's term "techno fascism" because I think Techno Fascism is a great phrase, I know it's a problematic kind of phrase, but I think it really nails it, so I'm gonna just stick with that. We know who the techno fascists are I guess.

About three years ago now, the Economist kicked off with a an issue on what they dubbed the "tech-lash". Some people have decided to see the techlash as a kind of neo-luddite movement. I don't think that could be further from the truth. I think that the techlash is the growing awareness of the big problems that we have with Silicon Valley, with certain mindsets and ways of thinking within the technology industry. The movement there is towards extremely dehumanizing technologies of cybernetic governance, of tracking and monitoring everything, of psychological manipulation and constant tie-ins with marketing and political influence.

Well, let me put it this way; it's one of the reasons that on the reading list for my cybersecurity and computing engineering students, is Edwin Blacks "IBM and the Holocaust". It's really essential reading. One of the points that we we look at is the opening scene from Schindler's List. If you ask people to recall the opening scenes of Schindler's List they'll come up with something like children being shot by Nazis.

It's nothing like that. The opening scene of Schindler's List is actually an official sitting at a table with a little bottle of ink and he's asking a line of people for their names. IBM and the Holocaust is a essential text to read to understand the relationship between data gathering, between enforced identity, in relation to abuse, and to marginalization and ultimately to events like the Holocaust.

So let's suppose these digital certificates are viable and secure - which I'm shortly going to argue that they're not, not at all, but let's suppose for a moment that they are, and that they do give utility and function as a way to easing lockdown, toward relaxation of quarantine.

What many people may be missing is that is that technology companies, once they've gained some ground, never ever give it up. The same pretty much goes for governments, although governments change and will move in a different direction, but there's always a ratcheting effect. Once you've established a framework, or an application, and you have digital certificates which allow social privileges and social permissions - in a way that kind of goes beyond tickets and payment tokens that we already have - these frameworks will never be withdrawn, They will be continually added to. You may have a digital certificate that shows that you have tested positive for C19 antibodies, but once that's commonplace and people have accepted it in a few years time you'll have the same certificate prohibiting you from working in the food industry because you once had salmonella, or prohibiting you from ever driving a taxi because you once had a too many speeding tickets.

It circumvents the criminal justice system and it creates a parallel punitive system which does not allow justice to be done. If you study jurisprudence, you come to an understanding there are many functions of a justice system, but one of them is to get people to rehabilitate and move on with their lives. The idea of a permanent record, as Edward Snowden puts it, is utterly dystopian and against all enlightenment liberal values.

So this ratcheting effect is a real problem and one of the things that we need to do, assurances that we need to be able to make, is that any scheme like that is temporary and reversible. And is most importantly, elective. It's must be something which people are not coerced into doing.

Now I want to speak to that point right away. There's something I think is remarkable, and it's something that the British people should be amazingly proud of. Look at difference between how things are unfolding in Britain and in the U.S.A. From what I've seen, compliance and cooperation with social distancing has been pretty much universal. It has been right from the get-go, people have just got it! Not only are 99% of people socially distancing really well, and sensible as they're doing it in a practical way, and with dignity, and with politeness.

You know you see people for the mostpart nodding and waving to each other in the street and passing by and being considerate to the body space and proximity of others. It makes me really happy and proud to see. There have been a few cases of overzealous policing. There was some ridiculous incident where the police poured dye into a a beauty spot in the North of England, I think there were complete idiots, and it shows a bitter and authoritarian war against nature. (It seems actually nature's doing rather well at the moment).

Now, contrast that with what's happening in the States. This is classic utilitarian philosophy! Stateside you have something which looks a lot like Mills's philosophy, a different flavor of utilitarianism, while over here in Britain we have something that looks a lot more like Bentham's kind of utilitarianism. You know, what makes the Mills interpretation, and it's one which I really support to be honest, it's much more my own philosophy, go wrong in America, is people need to make informed decisions. The Americans are subject to so much disinformation and the internet really is a sewer of disinformation, there were so many actors engaged in malinfluence for their own profit. So I hate to say it, but the Americans do seem largely ignorant of the science and the logic around infection control, percolation models, and why quarantine works.

This idea that "it's my body and I can choose to be infected if I want", is well, obviously it's selfish, but it completely misses the point that you're not doing it to for your own good, on your own account, you're not doing it for you, you're isolating for the good of others.

And so we see this bizarre juxtaposition in the U.S, where commentators are saying "hey it's my body I should be able to get infected with C19 virus if I want"... they're the same people who are anti-abortionists, they're the same people who want to tell a woman what she can and can't do with her own body and even funnier, many of them are the kind of preppy survivalist types who have a cache of armorlite rifles and six months of food supplies in their garage, but their life goes to shit as soon as they can't get a haircut. They're demanding be allowed to go out and do that!

So looking at utility, yeah the question is - is there really utility in social distancing? Is it working?

The answer is very much an obvious YES! I don't think that's debatable. I don't see how that can be controversial. I don't see how anyone can have so little mathematical and logical sense as not to see that disrupting the propagation of a virus by keeping away from other people is highly effective.

So the danger, the situation that we're in now is that governments want to remove the lockdown as quickly as possible. To save this abstract idea of "the economy". I don't actually know what an "economy" is you know. I'm not an economist, but I am aware that we call it economics and not 'economology'. It's no science right? Economics is elevated too far to higher station in my opinion. If it's not the sum total of human welfare then what exactly is it?

Looking at the way that nature is recovering at the moment, you know, we have clear skies at night, we have air that you can breathe, we have peace and quiet, there are bees and butterflies back in the fields, it's kind of tempting to think that the economy is the enemy.

So it seems there were two quite dangerous extreme positions in here.

The first is that the economy is the most important thing and regardless of the consequences we need to rush back to the life that we had six months ago. I think that's the general thrust in the U.S. now, Trump is pretty much a C19 denier if you like.

The other dangerous position is one that comes of, I think a justified realization, that many of the things that we call the economy are in fact the causes of the predicament that we're in right now - unsustainable way of life, overcrowding, poor housing, domination by corporations and a work ethic which is just unproductive makework - people rushing around in cars needlessly...

I think many people are holding out a hope that this this event is not just a wake-up call, but precipitates genuinely good change, in the way that we all live our lives. The tragedy will be, if in six months time we're all back to being crammed onto buses and tubes and stressed about working competing with each other for status instead of building communities of mutual help and many of the good things that are happening now as a result of this crisis.

Taken to an extreme, there's going to be a contingent of people who basically say you know ... "fuck the economy". "What is this thing you call the economy? Is it not a system that just benefits the one percent at the expense of everybody else on the planet?" They'll say, "you know what - let it collapse, let it burn, let it fall down"

There could be a cult of people who see this as kind of nature's revenge, and so on, and I think that's a very dangerous mindset too, because although there are grains of truth in that, it's a bit like seeing that your Rose Garden is strewn with weeds and going to the shed and fetching a flamethrower.

The more important question is, sure there are things that we know are wrong, there are things that we know are unsustainable, and we can't seem to break out of them, so which bits of the economy are we prepared to let die? Which bits of the economy can we let fail, and though that may bring short-term hardships, the long-term gains are obviously going to be much better?

A great danger that we're discussing here today is rather than those dangerous and damaging aspects of the economy, which ought to be buried, disappearing and failing, that they're going to go from strength to strength.

Most of the anti-humanist techno-fascist technology companies right now absolutely rubbing their hands together! They're loving this, they're enjoying an enormous land grab. It further erodes privacy, dignity, and people's control over their own lives. Not just with companies like Zoom trading data to Facebook, but notice that companies like Google are immediately behind initiatives to things which are potentially abusive and fascist, they're very quick to support ideas which are potentially a threat to human rights.

Another really important question is about alternatives. When all that you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail. A lot of digital technology is just "solutions looking for a problem". Whenever something happens, whenever a new human need arises, there are millions of people around the world and massive industries whose interests are served by offering technological solutions. We immediately say "hey, is there an app for that, isn't there something that our smartphones could do to solve that problem?", and sometimes there is, but very often that's completely the wrong approach.

So why the hell would you need digital technology to solve a problem like certifying your status as somebody with a particular health condition? You need an ordinary paper note from your doctor, signed by a GP, that should be absolutely sufficient.

Now, let's think about this, because where people go wrong with technology is they misunderstand incentives. As I said before, the British people are doing an outstanding job of electively cooperating with social distancing. People really get that is in their interests to do so. A digital certificate only becomes necessary where there's no trust. When there's no incentive for people to cooperate. A digital certificate is essentially a status which is foisted upon you, it's other-regarding, it's not information that you carry forward about yourself and willingly cooperate to give up because it's in your interests to do so. What kind of an idiot who didn't have covert antibodies would want to go back to work? Well, only somebody who's in a precarious economic situation, which is how we got into this mess in the first place.

Remember my comments about the Beecham's "Cold and Flu" advert from the 1990s, how that whole corporate macho pissing contest, based on a kind of distorted Protestant work ethic, just incited people to go into the office and infect all their co-workers while trying to mask their symptoms? Well that's all that digital certificates are going to do!

Working now under the assumption that they're _not) secure, under the assumption that these things are probably going to be easily forged, or transferable, or modifiable in some way - I mean that people are going to hack this stuff, and the people who are going to hack it are the people who have the resources. All you do with the technology like this is create more division. More privilege hor the "haves" and less opportunity for the "have-nots".

Let's be perfectly honest about privilege for a moment. One of the biggest problems, one of the things that the British should be ashamed of, not proud, is that all of our airports are still open to private jets. There was an article in The Times last week, rich people are flocking to Britain. They're moving in and out of the borders with impunity, without isolation or quarantine, just because they have money. There's one set of rules for ordinary people and a completely different set of rules for the rich.

Well what makes you think that that's not going to apply to any other kind of digital measures to control the virus?

Corruption, and understanding corruption is absolutely essential to security engineering. We can't really discuss an idea like digital certificates allowing people ways to return to work, without thinking about corruption and the long term consequences of ideas like that.

So those of you who are old enough to remember segregation in the U.S. and even those my age who remember Apartheid in South Africa, and how the world really united to drive out the South African regime - well you know there are many aspects of new digital technologies which are almost certain to create new forms of apartheid and segregation.

Unless we fight back against companies like Facebook and Google and Apple, unless we break down their monopolies and challenge their projects of cybernetic governance and psychological control of people, what we're going to end up with is a new kind of division.

What I say to my cybersecurity students is that what we'll see in the future is different. Classic models of division are always based on economic ideas and we often group people into two camps - the haves, and the have-nots, those people who have access to something and those people who for some reason don't have access to it, but they would like access to it.

I say there will be a completely different kind of division in the future. The world will be broken into the "will" and the "will nots". The world will be broken into a group of people who sacrifice willingly their privacy their dignity and their humanity to obtain certain economic privileges, and another group of people who value the non-monetary, basically who have who have a different motivation or and reward structure, people who value different things in life, and they will be the "will nots".

They will be the people like me who "will not" carry a cell phone I will never have a smart phone. I've got by for thirty years without a smart phone, the kind of all-in-one tracking and surveillance device that some people carry around now. I think they're disgusting instruments and cause of a lot of problems in society. My choice!

People like me, who will never carry a smartphone, will go to prison before being coerced into carrying always-on tracking device and surveillance devices, will be effectively excluded from large parts of modern society. And willingly.

I think people who think this way, you know it's time to pick your site now. I think it's time to make those decisions and have your voice heard and to do so in a rational way. It's not to reject any technologies as a Luddite, but to celebrate those technologies which have real utilitarian real humanist benefit for humankind, and are not forms of fascism by the back door.

I grew up in a village in the early 1970s with people who had lived not just in one war, but had fought in two wars, and I heard so many stories about sacrifice, and about human values, about doing the right thing, about standing up for what you believe in, and about fighting fascists and authoritarian kinds in whatever form. Most of those people are dead now. And we have the same danger for Holocaust, most of the people who were in the camps dead now. There's no first-hand information for young people to really understand dangers of fascism and the cost of fighting it.

So my moral arithmetic is that the Second World War, you know we lost 50 million people driving back authoritarianism and fascism. What should be the cost that we're prepared to take to avoid allowing fascism in through the back door now? I think my grandparents generation would have accepted a lot more. And I think that we should too.

Just as war brings out their the worst in people, you know, it also brings out the best in people, and we've seen that during the C19 crisis. Sure, you do see selfish behavior. You do see people who panic and put themselves first. You do see people who just flout the rules and put themselves above the law. But you see a lot more people who are building communities, who are helping each other out cooking meals, looking after their neighbors, volunteering to pick up litter, doing maintenance in their community for no money... So I think there's a great opportunity here for for those of us that want to promote more humanistic uses of technology to get our ideas across. To raise public awareness of the grave dangers of of tech fascist projects, and technologies which disable and take away your freedoms and dignities.

We should promote alternatives like those from the free open-source software movement, products like Jitsi in place of Zoom, and the many free tools that there are for video and audio production so that you can work from home without having to use corporate proprietary software and tools that compromise your privacy and freedom. I think it's a great opportunity for us to raise the level of debate about these technologies in society.

The Economist's formulation of the techlash, although I read and like The Economist, and was honestly a bit one-dimensional in my opinion. I don't think we've yet really examined the complexity of this debate and the issues that people are having with technology.

I don't think we've really started to think about how we can build alternatives to companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, but this crisis is bringing the problems into sharper relief and that's a good thing.

So in bringing my comments to a close... just in the last couple of days while I've been recording these comments there have been a couple of interesting developments and news articles.

The first is that the W.H.O have pretty much said no to to the idea of immunity passports. And this is very, very interesting and a little bit scary. Well it certainly changes the world that we live in.

My understanding of the C19 virus had been that like other influenza viruses you could obtain immunity, and although that is partly or even largely true, it's not wholly true.

And from the reading that I have done, I now understand that corona viruses are something that you can catch, be infectious, then build antibodies for, and recover from - but then catch it again and still go through all of the stages of infection including being a infectious carrier.

That's really different from our understanding of normal influenza viruses for which we can have vaccines, but the World Health Organization have, I think, tried to explain the best science that we have on this and to make it clear to governments and tech corporations that the idea of digital certificates and even applications that trace proximity and contact are really quite limited.

So I suspect at the moment that those who are pressing ahead with these ideas are doing so for private economic interests rather than genuinely thinking about what is a good measure.

In Daniel's case, which concerns the Isle of Wight, I think that he's very right that councillors there are lobbying for technologically mediated privilege to satisfy those wealthy second home owners who want to push for an early lifting of restrictions.

Pressure is rather obviously being increased by all of those who have economic interests. This week The Times newspaper carried the headline that "Tory Grandees" were pushing the government towards an early end to the lockdown.

Well I had to think about that. What are Tory Grandees? Is that just code for "rich industrialists"? So we have a government that's under great pressures to lift restrictions early, for economic reasons, and a snake-oil technological mechanism for making that seem okay... A lethal combination. Despite that the W.H.O have said that that's nonsense. So the stage is set for another push by the tech fascists, whose interests are very much aligned with other parts of the corporate world.

Tags: coronavirus

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