The Risk with(out) Surveillance


Risk and resilience has become a mantra for pandemic preparedness, natural disaster response, conflict prevention and crime prevention.  The use of surveillance technology to incorporate prediction and prevention into resilience strategies has been met with, for the most part, public approval.  Whether the surveillance deployed is CCTV, internet text mining or satellite, the presumption is that this technology is not only improving our capacity to be alerted to danger but through this our capacity to prevent it.

With the increased use of information communication technology -such as internet based surveillance of news and social media for tracing pandemics, civil unrest or disaster outbreaks (i.e. HealthMap, Ushashi and BioCaster) – concerns have been raised about governments’ efforts to control this technology.  The risk is that if governments are allowed to dictate what is looked at, surveillance will become good only at producing the knowledge that governments want us to know. In this scenario resilience will be measured only against the information that was disseminated rather against what was really occurring.

In the 1990s, when ProMED Mail first started reporting disease outbreaks to their open-access subscribers, some of their informants from Ministries of Health or government-affiliated science labs were harassed and imprisoned because of their communications with the surveillance network.  Today, we see that disease outbreak reports rarely occur without the government knowing or participating in some part.  Indeed, the extent to which internet surveillance can detect an outbreak prior to the government knowing of the outbreak remains rare.   As the recent H7N9 avian influenza outbreak in China reveals, the government is still a vital source for alerting its population and the international community to outbreaks.

However, the value of surveillance versus the risk for individuals to participate with surveillance sites leaves us with two outstanding questions.

First, to what extent is surveillance actually increasing resilience?  An earlier outbreak case in China – SARS in 2003 – revealed how this technology allowed the world to know that not all cases were being reported in the Chinese media.  But the extent of the cover-up was not known until a brave military doctor took the more traditional publication route and faxed a letter to various news outlets detailing the patients he was treating in a military hospital in Beijing.  In other words, surveillance technology has, and will continue to have, black holes in situations where governments favour concealment over transparency.  The relatively unexplored question is what inducements can be offered to reduce the black holes, not just in times of crisis.  H7N9 may prove a very important comparison with SARS to learn what the Chinese government learned concerning surveillance and transparency.

Second, a deeper examination of what surveillance technology tell us shows that it mostly echoes government and newspaper reports – sourced with information that has come from (local, regional or national) government spokespersons.  This means that the actual source of information may not have changed very much.  For the most part, from Australia to Zimbabwe, the government is crucial for keeping us informed. What is new is that non-state surveillance technology and social media actors can communicate information immediately and to a larger audience.  This may create the impression that a significant amount of new information is being created. In reality, in health emergencies there are good reasons why governments remain the primary source of information – they control most of the hospitals, employ most of the health professionals and have unrivalled domestic resources and the capacity to authoritatively communicate with the public.

Another, less explored concern relating to surveillance is the question of who is doing the reporting.  Internet surveillance, for example, relies on phrases and location of interest.  The content is what matters. But who is doing the reporting and what is not reported may be lost in the volume of what is reported.  Novel Coronavirus and the little information we have about the passage of this disease, from it seems, the Middle East is a good example.  When little information is provided about the reporters themselves, and the affiliation of news agencies with government, business or other vested interest, we struggle to know veracity and what action must follow from these reports. Other factors may produce under-reporting: we have less information about events in remote and densely populated refugee camps; locations with no/poor internet and mobile access or coverage; we will have poor information about marginalised groups and ethnic minorities affected by disease, disaster or acts of violence; and we will always have more difficulty verifying events in countries where individuals are at risk if their location, identity and means of communication are revealed to the authorities.

Using surveillance technology to build resilience and plan for risk is important, but we also need to have resilience for the politics concerning what information is given and received.

Sara Davies, Human Protection Hub