Healthy surveillance - happy data sharing!

Research in the time of COVID-19

Under the heading “Research in the time of Covid-19” we publish a range of blogs connecting our evidence, thoughts, new ideas, hopes and fears to the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic for society, social research, labour markets, social and health policies.

Günter Stummvoll

Readers of this essay are invited to a quiz: try to spot the difference between reality and dystopia!

“Ladies and gentlemen, I welcome you to this meeting that we are starting today with a new ritual. As you know, registration with the COVID-19 app is a prerequisite for attending this meeting. Now I ask you for the corresponding ‘electronic handshake’. At the same time, I have to inform you that you are obliged to report immediately if you receive a health warning during our session. In this case the session will be terminated.”

This is how a business meeting may be started in the near future. Of course, everyone agrees with the procedure, because it serves their own safety and the safety of everyone. After all, we are used to sharing private profiles on Facebook and other social media. What the participants of this meeting do not yet know is that an extension of the COVID-19 app is already in preparation, because human health is also threatened by other infectious diseases. A new app will soon be launched on the market that also warns us about other communicable diseases such as influenza, AIDS, hepatitis, diarrhoeal diseases, and herpes. It is expected that further communicable diseases will be added to that list of epidemic risks. But that’s not a problem, because the app protects us by warning us in good time. After all, there are also smart clinical thermometers that allow data on sick people across the country to be collected centrally and to send warnings about the spread of a flu epidemic – provided that as many people as possible use exactly these thermometers.

The new app also warns us when we enter an ‘orange zone’. This is the zone that has been declared a hotspot by the Ministry. Anyone entering this zone deliberately places himself in ‘considerable danger’. Virologists who advise politicians compare this system to other warning systems, for example, about thunderstorms, avalanches, bushfires and flooding, and these of course are very helpful. Also, if you put yourself in danger, insurance companies assume no liability. This also sounds familiar. With the help of virus warning apps, one is confident that the spread of the epidemic in this hotspot district or in that community will soon be under control.

The new app will be created using movement profiles of the population retrieved with mobile phone tracking techniques. This does not bother people either, because the many hobby athletes in this country have long been used to sharing personal data of performance diagnostics. Together with movement profiles, which provide information about the distances covered and meters in altitude, data on pulse, wattage, lactate measurements, body fat percentage before and after the training session and the performance curve of the entire season have been shared for a long time.

The introduction of new norms of behaviour such as social distancing or wearing safety masks is not only normative, i.e. socially wanted, but also anchored in law. Certain forms of deviant behaviour are now considered harmful to health and are officially criminalised, which means that the police are invoked to punish violations of the ‘willingness to cooperate in the health crisis’ with penalties. The government is now doing everything possible to improve the image of the application and is hoping for voluntary action. In a few weeks’ time, we shall say: The political strategy of ‘responsibilisation’ has been successful. The police are no longer the only authority of control; state control is being replaced by voluntary self-monitoring coupled with mutual social control.

Yes, we have learned to live responsibly. There are incentive systems in place that promise financial advantage if we change our behaviour in terms of health promotion: Insurance companies have come up with a fun game for this, in which customers can collect green and yellow points. You get green points if you go regularly to the fitness centre “xy” or to the fitness centre “z”, which both are generous sponsors of the game. You can collect yellow points by taking a health examination once a year. These efforts are rewarded with a reduction in insurance fees. We also know this reward principle from shopping in supermarkets: those who collect points receive a loyalty bonus and pay less.

Overall, the current socio-political spirit in the security society creates a perfect framework for these new forms of biopolitical surveillance: The security society is characterised by the fact that not only state authorities, but – gradually and to an increasing extent – private actors, too, participate in the production of security. Activity controls tend to be sought by all citizens with the aim of minimising risk for everyone. The production of security is not just a state task, but a permanent social effort, a regime of daily social life. That is how the German sociologist Aldo Legnaro taught us a few years ago.

These features of a security society present fertile grounds for comprehensive health surveillance, linking data from different sources: mobile phone tracking, physiological performance diagnostics and epidemiological risk research. A new individual electronic health file will be created that can easily be shared – entirely voluntary. Health surveillance becomes consensual and instrumental and thus legitimates the surveillance of the healthy.

The series of terms to describe this sociological epoch will have to be extended. We not only live in ‘risk society’ or in ‘security society’, but we also live in times of crises. The perception of a permanent health crisis legitimates all forms of health surveillance – however, urged to voluntariness.