SSRC Report Tackles COVID-Driven Growing Data Economy

In a time of crisis, it might seem like a necessity to share your data in the hopes it might help solve the problem. During the COVID-19 pandemic, data has been shared and circulated at increasing rates, through health tracking apps, contact-tracing, and partnerships between private and public bodies to help combat the pandemic – in short, increasing data surveillance in the name of public health. In a new report, the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) examines the impact of COVID-19 on data surveillance and how this data can be used to assist, or harm, individuals and communities in a variety of situations. The report is produced by a global network of leaders from industry, civil society, government, and academia and was financially supported by the Ford, Luce, and MacArthur foundations.

“Surveillance and the New Normal of Covid-19: Public Health, Data and Justice” aims to be a step toward establishing a necessary framework for collecting data that advances public health imperatives without allowing for unbridled surveillance. The authors brought together the perspectives and interests of various sectors during the summer of 2020, forming the Public Health, Surveillance, and Human Rights Network to address a broad range of questions about governance, social inequalities, data protection, medical systems, and community norms. The group enjoys “robust participation,” said SSRC Program Director Dr. Alexa Dietrich, with representatives from various industries and geographies ranging from the UK, Singapore, Korea, Sweden, and Australia, among others. The network aims to shift reactive modes of crisis response to more strategic forms of deliberation, while raising awareness of just how much data collection has grown during the pandemic.

While in some cases, individuals may be more inclined to share their data, others remain skeptical and wary. Such reflects the double-edged sword that is COVID-19. The report acknowledges that embracing data as a problem solver can be beneficial, while understanding that ill-defined systems consisting of several key players can collect data unnecessarily and without even knowing what to do with it. While the report argues for greater transparency and privacy, the authors acknowledge that how to do this is still unclear and part of a process of constant renegotiation.  It reads, “…the principles that emerged from the work of the PHSHR Network underscore that designing effective social interventions requires constant recalibration, conscientious governance, and a commitment to justice”. 

The report suggests those already under greater surveillance now, such as low-income communities, refugees, or those involved in the criminal justice systems, are more vulnerable to increased surveillance and its negative effects, such as misuse of their personal data. As the report states, “Surveillance infrastructures can be repurposed, thereby compounding the challenges of ensuring public and private sector accountability.” Further, the authors understand that the questions and needs in times of crisis may not necessarily be needed in the future. Strategies used today for a better tomorrow need not be retained forever. The need for greater transparency and collaboration remains, as a continuum of data surveillance breaches sectors as wide-ranging as e-commerce, consumption, public health, community work and more.

You can read the report here.

This article is part of a series on consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic. As we surpassed the 1-year mark of lockdown living, the series looks at how the ways that we connect, communicate, and live have changed. From increased surveillance and usage of personal data for the purpose of surveillance, to restructuring our homes to better meet our changing demands, the pandemic has jumpstarted new trends while accelerating some already existing. It has challenged the ways that we cope and ignited conversation on the need for better support systems such as for mental health and well-being. For further reading, follow the series on Social Science Space with the tag “COVID and Consumption”.

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Kenalyn Ang

Kenalyn Ang is the social science communications intern with SAGE Publishing. She is also a communications student at the USC Annenberg School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior, identity-making and representation through the written word, and creative sensory marketing and branding strategies.

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