In my new novel, Blinky’s Law, the citizens of Luhan Hypercity are constantly tracked by sensors that gather all sorts of data including health data. The tracking enables Society’s systems to shape around an individual to optimise their lives. All for their own good.
At the moment, countries around the world are considering coronavirus smartphone apps to track their citizens. The apps will alert people if they are threatened by COVID-19 or pose a threat to others. All for their own good.
In order for these apps to be effective, the vast majority of citizens need to participate. So how could these apps work, are they all for our own good and where could they lead to?
Centralised v decentralised apps
One approach to the apps is the centralised model that gathers and uploads data to governmental servers. This is the model preferred by countries such as France, Norway and India. However, when Singapore tried a centralised system, TraceTogether, not enough people uploaded their data to make it effective. India intends to solve that issue by compelling citizens to upload their data. They’ve shown compulsion works before when they built a comprehensive citizen biometrics database. Citizen data is highly desirable for governments, but many are treading warily. Although compulsion has formed an essential role in enforcing lockdowns and social distancing, it has made governments unpopular. In most democracies that makes politicians nervous.
The decentralised model gives the data to private companies like Google or Apple. This is the model favoured by many countries, including Australia and Germany. Tech companies have certainly proved themselves very adept at persuading us to give them our data. They have effectively ‘gamed’ us into doing so. However, giving data to unaccountable private companies may not persuade everyone to do so.
It seems most likely that a hybrid approach of government compulsion and private company persuasion will be required to make the contact-tracing work in a palatable way. The ‘carrot and stick’ approach. So how could a ‘carrot and stick’ model work?
‘Carrot and stick’ approach
Perhaps a scoring system could be implemented by which citizens could earn points for desirable behaviour and lose points for undesirable behaviour. Not go near anyone when out exercising, gain 1 point. Sneeze on someone, lose 10 points. Those who get above a certain score could be given greater rights to travel, get access to supermarkets and skip hospital waiting lines. Those who under that score will have to stay in lockdown and could be put into isolation. Good behaviour is therefore rewarded and bad behaviour punished. All for our own good.
Does a point scoring ‘carrot and stick’ model sound far-fetched? Such as system is already in place in China where a number of social credit score schemes have been sanctioned by the government to ‘allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.’ A citizen’s credit score can determine if she or he can rent vehicles without a deposit, travel on high-speed railways, book hotel rooms and even skip hospital waiting lines. Scores can be positively impacted by good citizenly behaviour such as loyal buying patterns and giving blood and can be negatively impacted by ‘anti-social behaviour’ such as parking outside a designated parking bay, quarrelling with a neighbour or worse, ‘spreading rumours’. If your social credit score is low you will be blacklisted. If you phone a blacklisted person you will hear a siren and recorded message that says: ‘Warning, this person is on the blacklist. Be careful and urge them to repay their debts.’ That’s not all. When a blacklisted person passes certain busy areas in Beijing, facial-recognition technology projects their face and ID number on huge electronic billboards. China argues that this is all for its citizens’ own good. After all, as its government says: "keeping trust is glorious and breaking trust is disgraceful."
'This is social engineering not by Big Brother but by Big Data' Martin Talks
The coronavirus-tracing app could be a step in this direction. After all, the pandemic has justified a whole range of limitations to our civil liberties and regaining our liberties may not be easy.
So what might the future look like?
The scenario in my novel Blinky’s Law is that every citizen in Luhan Hypercity has a Personal Data Score, a PDS:
‘A Personal Data Score, known as a PDS, determined how a person lived in Luhan Hypercity, from their eligibility for the latest technology upgrades, to the standard of their apartment, to their job. So pretty much their everything.’ -Blinky's Law.
A PDS score is determined by a citizen’s thoughts, words and deeds. Data is gathered by a whole variety of sensors: some external to people such as the devices on the streets and in their apartments, and some internal such as a neurochip inserted into every citizen’s brain at birth. This is then used to organise the world around people’s individual personalised needs. As soon as a citizen leaves their apartment, a self-driving car is waiting ready to take them to their destination. As they approach a building, doors open for them and access is granted. Their nutritional and health needs are met and new exciting device upgrades are delivered. And the more positive a person’s contribution is considered by Society’s systems, the higher their PDS and the greater their rewards. This enables a coherent and compliant Society all for its citizens’ own good.
If a person’s PDS score is too low or they remove their neurochip, then the world will no longer optimise around them. Hiu, the protagonist of Blinky’s Law, finds this out to his cost.
“With no EK neurochip, nothing knew who he was and nothing cared either. Like the door said, he was an Illegal, a nobody to be denied the privileges of humans in Society including entry to apartment blocks. Essentially he could no longer Be Human.” - Blinky's Law.
Again, does this sound far-fetched? We are already experiencing it online. Often websites will deny us access if we don’t register, answer questions or allow them to cookie us so they can use our personal data.
Like Hiu, now and increasingly in the future, you might well conclude that:
“I am because I am tracked.” - Blinky's Law.
Author of Blinky’s Law - a thrilling and comic science fiction adventure into the future