Governments around the world are increasingly turning to technology as a tool to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. In India, these tools have ranged from various contact tracing apps to using drones. Privacy concerns have been raised by activists, lawyers and concerned citizens about the use of such intrusive digital technologies. But while these concerns are valid, a crucial element remains unrecognised: what is at stake is not merely our informational privacy, but our autonomy, dignity, bodily integrity, and equality.
We live in a world where data about us are constantly being collected. Governments and corporations are moving towards using data as a means of governance and regulation of what our physical bodies can do. This is what is happening, for example, when you are asked to digitally scan your fingerprint to allow your physical body to enter your workspace. Or you may have felt a sense of unease when you realise you are under surveillance through CCTV cameras. Nobody is physically present, yet we somehow feel the gaze on our bodies.
Bodily integrity and autonomy
Informational privacy may no longer be sufficient to ensure our rights are protected. Instead we need to include matters such as bodily integrity, autonomy and dignity. In the current jump towards technologies as a means to combat the pandemic and control our bodies, this is particularly evident. Consider the questions of control that are raised as this line is becoming blurred. Most people would feel uncomfortable inviting an official into their home every hour to show they are complying with quarantine orders. But effectively, that is what is happening through apps such as Karnataka’s Quarantine Watch, which requires those under quarantine to send hourly selfies with GPS coordinates to officials. Through your digital images, your physical body is being disciplined to stay at home, without the need for the official to be physically present.
And where personal data about ourselves are shared or leaked, this may lead to us experiencing a sense of lack of control, fear of uncertainty, and loss, even though nothing has been taken from us physically. This is evident, for example, where data of those who have been home quarantined are shared publicly. Those affected have reported immense psychological stress. In Hyderabad, one home-quarantined man described his experience as “torture” after people started calling at odd hours to provide suggestions or ask questions.
Thus, the potential misuse of our data raises concerns beyond just privacy. It can lead to individuals feeling humiliated, publicly targeted and shamed, raising concerns of dignity and discrimination. The consequences of the public sharing of personal data will not be felt equally by everyone. The experiences we have navigating the material world are often relational to who we are and what body we have. Those who do not conform to society’s dominant views, such as trans people, tend to face greater discrimination. In Hyderabad, derogatory posters targeting trans people were put up saying interactions with them could lead to COVID-19. Such differences also apply to the virtual world shaping our online experiences. Given the greater risk of stigma trans people face, public sharing of their personal data can have dangerous consequences.
So, while a pandemic might warrant greater collection of our data, we must not lose sight of the harms this can bring, now and in the future. The data collected by various institutions can be used to re-exert control over our bodies, through ways often unknown, making it hard to question this. But data protection legislation have not kept up with this new reality and the challenges it brings. Formulated on the premise of data as a ‘resource’ or ‘oil’, they tend to completely miss out on the issues of bodily integrity and autonomy.
Tanisha Ranjit is a junior researcher at the Internet Democracy Project, a member of the Data Governance Network