Japanese-to-English source text（安全か自由か 「緊急事態」が問う「生権力」問題） is here
I took part in a discussion in the April issue of this magazine themed around whether the information society of the future would be one that emphasizes human rights and freedom as seen in Europe and America, or one that emphasizes surveillance as seen in China. However, things have changed so rapidly in just the past month that it feels like we are in a different world, and every country is taking measures to utilize smartphone location information and big data to “fight” COVID-19.
A system first implemented by Singapore has been attracting significant attention among those measures. The proximity between smartphones is being continuously recorded, and when a new case of COVID-19 is confirmed, notifications are sent to smartphones recorded to have been in that person’s proximity beforehand. It is said that Japan will be testing a similar application, and it was announced on April 10th that this will be co-developed by Apple and Google, then incorporated into their operating systems in the near future.
This plan is an ambitious one, and what it means is this: smartphones will constantly record who a user is around and when, and although this information is anonymized, it will then be usable by third-parties. There are more than 5 billion smartphones between these two companies worldwide, and if this plan comes to fruition, the impact will be tremendous. This likely would have been met with vocal criticism just a few months ago, but there is now a shocking lack of objection. It seems that under the fear of infection, arguments about freedom and privacy have taken the backseat as differences between the West and China fade.
I recall a deep sense of dread towards such a scenario, rooted in the fear of growing numb to it. The increased surveillance we are seeing is tied closely to “biopower,” a concept introduced by the French philosopher Foucault. It refers to the power over allowing people to live, managing them statistically and biologically as a large group. This concept was developed with a close link to medicine and public health, and now that the whole world is behaving the same in its measures against COVID-19, it could also be said that biopower has become a new normal.
Biopower itself is not an evil thing, but it should be handled with care. Due to how close it is in origin to the idea of managing livestock, applying it to the individual is cruel. Supposing women of a particular demographic have high-risk pregnancies, it would be an unacceptable violation of human rights to tell each of those women that they cannot get pregnant, regardless of how “logical” that may seem in terms of managing humans as a whole. Biopower should only be used for managing humans in large groups, never as individuals, and herein lies the challenge.
The modern surveillance currently being proposed, as well as its background of preventing the spread of infectious disease, can be seen as aiming to subject individuals to biopower. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is an issue that should be tackled from the perspective of managing people in groups. From an individual’s perspective, while they may be infected if they come into contact with someone who has the disease, they may also not, and it is because of this ambiguity that we are able to function with some degree of freedom. The idea mentioned earlier of contact tracing masks the risk of that freedom being stripped away from individuals, roots and all, by blaming individual conduct for what is actually a failure of managing groups. Indeed, the very ability to trace every source of infection means that human contact itself can be traced, and with that comes the issue of whether it is truly acceptable for such technology to be developed.
Safety of the herd, or freedom of the individual. There may be many who think we have no choice but to prioritize the former in the current crisis, but the problem is not such a simple one.
There will come a day when the coronavirus crisis ends, but the results of not arguing for freedom and privacy over the panic of infection will likely leave a painful scar when it does. It is precisely now when the differences between the West and China have faded that we should consider the state of information technology, not after things have calmed down.
In the April issue of this magazine, I appeared in a discussion on whether our information society will come to follow the Western model of civil liberties which emphasizes freedom or the Chinese model which emphasizes monitoring. Within a single month, however, global circumstances have very suddenly and dramatically changed. In order to fight the novel coronavirus, every country is working on the practical application of big data such as location information from smartphones.
One utilization garnering attention quite recently is a system in which proximity between smartphones is continuously recorded so that when a new infection is confirmed, a warning message is sent out to the smartphones of people who were in close contact with the infected individual in the past. Singapore was the first to implement an app using this system with Japan hard at work on proof-of-concept testing for a similar app. On April 10th, Apple and Google announced they would work together to incorporate them into their operating systems in the near future.
This is a fairly ambitious project as, essentially, it would allow data relating to whom a user was with as well as when to be continuously recorded for later use by a third-party (although after being anonymized). The two companies are said to account for five billion of the world’s smartphones, so if such a system was implemented, the impact would no doubt be tremendous. Although a few months earlier this would have surely invited a chorus of harsh criticism, at the moment, critical voices are surprisingly silent. In the face of the fear caused by infectious disease, it appears the discussion surrounding freedom and privacy has been put on the back burner with the differences between the West and China appearing to have lost their significance as well.
I can’t help but feel a strong sense of danger from the current situation because desensitization to issues like this is frightening. The current intensification of surveillance has a deep connection to “biopower”. The concept of biopower was created by French philosopher Michel Foucault and refers to the maintenance of humans in a group through statistical or biological management. This power has grown while tied to medicine and public health. Now, with the world having become engrossed in coronavirus countermeasures, one could certainly say it has reached full-scale.
Biopower in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. However, there are a few points we should be careful of. The way of thinking at the core of biopower is similar to that of livestock management, so applying it to individual humans can be terribly cruel. For example, say the risk of complications during childbirth for a particular group of women is high. No matter how “logical” it appears from the standpoint of maintaining the group, ordering each woman to abort their pregnancy would not be tolerated as it would be a human rights issue. Biopower is best used only for the management of groups and shouldn’t be applied to human individuals. Herein lies the difficulty with biopower.
Even so, the new monitoring currently being proposed and the infection control measures behind it seem to be setting us on a course towards the use of biopower on the individual. Prevention of coronavirus infections is essentially an issue of group management. On the other hand, if looked at from the perspective of the individual, contact with an infected person will sometimes result in infections while other times it will not. We are able to act freely to some extent precisely because that ambiguity exists. However, something like the aforementioned approach to contact tracing will label failures in group management as failures of individual action. There is a potential risk that the people’s freedom of action could be stolen from them completely. In the first place, there is also the question of whether it would even be right to develop such technology given that the ability to trace every source of infection means being able to trace every human relationship as well.
The safety of the group, or the freedom of the individual? There are probably many who believe prioritizing the former is inevitable given the current state of emergency. However, this question isn’t nearly so straightforward as that.
The day the coronavirus disaster comes to an end will certainly arrive. When it does, the fact that, when confronted with the fear of infectious disease, issues of freedom and privacy were not disputed may become a large stain on our record. With distinctions between Western and Chinese methods less valid, isn’t now exactly the time when we should calmly consider how information technology ought to be used?
The April issue of this magazine ran a story on a lecture I attended. The topic was whether the information society of the future would emphasize Western-style human rights and freedoms or focus on surveillance like China. However, circumstances have drastically changed in just one month, and we are now living in a completely different age. In order to “wage war” against the novel coronavirus, every country is now coming together to utilize smartphone GPS information and big data.
One of the systems that has recently attracted attention continuously records smartphones in close proximity to each other and, following the confirmation of a new infection, sends an alert to smartphones whose users had been in previous contact with the infected person. Singapore was one of the first to introduce this system, and Japan is rumored to be working on a field test of a similar app. On April 10, Apple and Google announced they would jointly develop contact tracing technology and incorporate it into their operating systems in the near future.
It’s a fairly ambitious undertaking. In short, a smartphone will record who the user was with and when, and later make that information available to third parties (albeit through anonymization). Both companies are reputed to have sold more than five billion smartphones worldwide, meaning the effects would be tremendous if this plan becomes a reality. This would have invited a loud chorus of disapproval only a few months ago, yet now there's a surprising lack of criticism. The differences between the West and China seem to have become less significant as the debate on freedom and privacy has quickly taken a back seat in light of the panic over infectious diseases.
I feel a strong sense of danger about this situation. The paralysis of our senses frightens me. The current emphasis on surveillance is deeply tied to the concept of “biopower.” Biopower is a concept by the French philosopher Michel Foucault that seeks to “maximize the potential” of humankind as a group through statistical as well as biological means. It is a power that has developed in conjunction with medicine and public health; now that the world is caught up in coronavirus countermeasures, one can say we are witnessing the full extent of biopower in this situation.
Biopower itself is not evil, but there are factors we should take into consideration. Since biopower shares roots with the idea of livestock management, it can be incredibly atrocious if applied to individual human beings. For example, if a specific group of women were at high risk of giving birth, ordering every one of them to terminate their pregnancies is impermissible as a human rights issue no matter how logical it might seem in terms of population control. Biopower should strictly be used to manage a group, and not applied to individual humans; herein lies the difficulty of biopower.
However, the new surveillance method now being proposed, and the infection control measure ideology behind it, appears to aim for the application of biopower directed at the individual. The prevention of coronavirus transmission is essentially a population control issue. If seen from the perspective of an individual in a rural area, they may or may not become infected even if they come into contact with an infected person. It’s that ambiguity which allows us to act with a certain amount of freedom. Yet the aforementioned idea of contact tracing presents the possible risk of completely depriving that freedom from the people by reframing failures in population control as failures in individual actions. To begin with, the fact that every infection route can be tracked means every human relationship can be tracked. There is also the question of whether it's really appropriate to develop such technology.
The safety of the group or the freedom of the individual? Many may be of the opinion that the former priority is unavoidable because of the current crisis, but the problem is not as simple as that.
The day will come when this coronavirus pandemic will end. Our “achievements” from not discussing neither freedom nor privacy in the face of our fear over infectious disease at the time will leave a substantial scar. Now that the disparities between the West and China have been rendered invalid, isn’t it time we compose ourselves and think about the current state of information technology?
For this year’s April issue, I participated in a discussion whose theme was whether today’s data-driven society would evolve towards the individual-rights-centric approach favored by Western countries or the surveillance-centric approach favored by China. However, in just a month, the circumstances have changed drastically, and the world has been rendered unrecognizable. In the “battle” against Covid-19, all countries, regardless of region, have adopted smartphone location tracking and big data into their arsenal.
Among various applications of location data, one that has recently attracted attention is a system that relies on smartphone logging. Smartphones part of this system automatically log other phones they come into close contact with; when a new coronavirus case is confirmed, the system sends an alert to any phones that have been in contact with the patient’s phone in the past. Singapore was the first to adopt such a system. Japan plans to incorporate it in a similar app prototype as well. Moreover, on April 10th, Apple and Google announced that they were collaborating on building and releasing this functionality into upcoming versions of their OSs.
Their proposal is quite ambitious. Under their plan, a user’s phone would constantly log who the user is with and when they were together; the data would subsequently be made available—albeit in an anonymized format—for third-party use. The two companies have sold over five billion phones worldwide combined, so the plan, if actualized, would have a tremendous impact. Had a similar announcement been made several months ago, it likely would have invited a chorus of detractors, but now there is a shocking lack of criticism. In face of the threat posed by the coronavirus, the debate around freedom and privacy has quickly receded into the background, and the difference in approach between China and the West has become virtually meaningless as well.
These circumstances instill in me a sense of foreboding. I fear this state of apathy we find ourselves in. The recent intensification of monitoring is closely tied to “biopower,” a term coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Biopower operates over large groups of people and refers to the regulation of a population through statistics and biological science; it is the power over life. Biopower is wielded through medical practices and public health institutions. Accordingly, today’s world, which has been homogenized by coronavirus countermeasures, could be viewed as the result of a metamorphosis caused by the exercise of biopower.
Biopower is not inherently evil, but we must exercise caution. Since biopower’s roots lie in theories behind practices such as livestock management, exercising biopower over individual lives would result in wanton cruelty. Take for example a group of women with high-risk pregnancies, each of whom are ordered to get an abortion. No matter how “logical” the order may seem from a population management perspective, as a human rights issue, it is indefensible. Biopower should be used to regulate populations and only populations; it must not be applied to individuals. Therein lies the difficulty of wielding biopower.
Returning to the recently-proposed monitoring methods, they—along with the underlying philosophy that individuals themselves should take measures to protect against infection—are arguably applications of biopower over individuals. Coronavirus prevention is fundamentally a problem of managing populations. From an individual’s perspective, if they had contact with an infected person, they might become infected, but they also might not. That ambiguity is what allows us to retain a certain degree of freedom in our actions. However, the aforementioned contact tracing system recasts the failure to manage the populace effectively as the failure of individuals to act appropriately and, in doing so, conceals a potential threat to uproot our freedom. Taking another step back, the ability to trace the entire network of infection routes implies the ability to trace the entire network of interpersonal relationships. Is it truly permissible to develop technology with these capabilities?
Public safety or individual freedom? The popular opinion may be that it is unavoidable should the former take precedent in the current state of emergency, but the question is not so straightforward.
The day the coronavirus pandemic ends will surely come. At that time, the “accomplishment” of putting the debates around freedom and privacy on pause in face of the threat posed by the coronavirus may instead become a wound left behind in our history. Isn’t this moment, in which the differences between the West and China have become insignificant, precisely the right moment to reexamine the state of digital technology with an objective eye?
I took part in an interview that ran in the April edition of this magazine. The theme was whether information societies will come to take on more Western qualities, in which there is a preference for human rights and personal freedoms, or if they will adopt a more Chinese-style emphasis on surveillance. However, the situation has changed drastically in the month since, making that interview feel like it occurred in a different lifetime entirely. These days, countries are pursuing ways to utilize big data and smart phone location information in an effort to “fight” the novel coronavirus.
Gaining particular attention recently is a system that keeps track of when smart phone users are in proximity to one another; when a new coronavirus case is confirmed, the system alerts owners of smart phones who may have come into contact with the infected individual. Singapore introduced such a system early on, it seems that Japan might also begin testing a similar smart phone application. On April 10th, which now seems so distant, Apple and Google announced that they would soon release a joint development that works in conjunction with existing iPhone or Android operating systems.
It is quite an ambitious plan, but in short, what this is means that smart phones would keep track of when the user came into contact with others, and that data would be available for use by a third party, albeit after anonymization. Between the two companies, there are over 5 billion smart phones using their operating systems, so if implemented, the effect would be enormous. Several months ago, a proposal like this probably would have been met with a chorus of criticism, but now there is surprisingly little comment. Debates on freedom and privacy have rapidly abated under the shadow of infection, and any differences between China and the West have become largely meaningless.
I feel that this situation is profoundly urgent—such a numbing of the senses is alarming. The current strengthening of surveillance has a deep connection with the concept known as “biopower.” Originally conceived by French philosopher Michel Foucault, “biopower” refers to the use of power to statistically and biologically control humans like a type of herd animal. This variety of power arose in connection with medical science and public health, and now with the world caught up in developing coronavirus countermeasures, we are in a situation in which biopower has become truly generalized.
It is not inherently a bad thing, but there are certain facets of biopower to be wary of. Given that the idea has origins close to those around livestock management, the application of biopower can result in tremendous cruelty to humans as individuals. For example, suppose that women belonging to a certain group have a high degree of risk associated with childbirth. Even if from the perspective of herd management, ordering those women to forego pregnancy would seem like the most “logical” thing to do, such a thing would be inexcusable with regard to human rights. Biopower should be used for the management of a herd, not applied at the level of the individual. This is one of the difficulties of this concept.
However, on the subject of newly proposed means of surveillance, as well as the ideas concerning infectious disease countermeasures that inform them, perhaps the application of biopower at the level of the individual is the goal. At its core, stopping the spread of coronavirus is a problem of herd management. On the other hand, as an individual, even if one encounters an infected person, there is a possibility of not becoming infected. It is precisely because of this ambiguity that we are able to act freely to some extent. But, as stated earlier, the idea behind contact tracing is that a failure in herd management can be reinterpreted as a failure of the individual, revealing a hidden danger of that freedom being stripped away. After all, being able to trace the route of infection means having the capability of mapping every single human relationship—should we really develop technology that can do that?
It is either the safety of the herd or the freedom of the individual. Given the current state of emergency, there might be many who begrudgingly prefer the former, but the problem is not that simple.
The COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end someday. When that happens, the fact that we did not discuss the implications for freedom and privacy in the face of our fear of infection will leave a serious scar. With the neutralization of differences between China and the West, should we not take the time to reflect on the current direction of our technological advancement?
I participated in a dialogue featured in the April edition of this publication on the topic of whether the information society of the future will resemble the Western model of valuing human rights and freedoms, or the China model of prioritizing surveillance. In the short month that followed, a dramatic turn of events fundamentally reshaped the conversation. In an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, all countries have adopted the use of smartphone location information and big data.
One such technology drawing increased public attention is digital contact tracing, which constantly logs encounters between smartphones and notifies devices that have been in contact with those of anyone who newly tests positive for COVID-19. Singapore was swift to adopt the technology and Japan has been piloting a similar app of its own. On April 10, Apple and Google announced a partnership to develop and integrate the technology into their devices in the near future.
The effort to have smartphones constantly log when and with whom their users come in contact, and make that (anonymized) information accessible to third parties at a later time represents quite an ambitious undertaking. Combined, Apple and Google have over five billion smartphones globally, meaning their partnership has enormous implications. Their plan would have sparked a wave of outrage only a few months ago, but as it stands, there has been an astonishing lack of pushback. With infection fears swelling, the debate over freedom and privacy has rapidly regressed to the point where it appears that the difference between the West and China has all but vanished.
I feel a great danger in the current global situation—it is frightening to see our collective senses growing numb. The expansion of surveillance we are experiencing is deeply tied to the concept of biopower, an idea formulated by French philosopher Michel Foucault to refer to a form of power that aims to govern populations by regulating human life using statistical and biological standards. Its use has evolved in conjunction with medicine and public health, and with the whole world currently engaged in the fight against COVID-19, it is precisely this concept of biopower that has permeated our society.
While the use of biopower is not inherently nefarious, it presents reasons for concern. Because the origins of biopower are closely related to the theoretical underpinnings of livestock management, its application to individual persons can result in inhumane outcomes. For example, if women belonging to a certain group are likely to experience high-risk pregnancies, no matter how rational it may be from a population management standpoint to demand that each of those women terminates her pregnancy, such an action would be indefensible from the lens of human rights. Biopower should only be exercised to manage populations as a whole and never in cases of individual persons. This is where the difficulty of exercising biopower lies.
The new forms of surveillance being proposed, in addition to the policy goals of disease control with which they align, appear to represent the use of biopower to manage individuals. Preventing the transmission of COVID-19 is, at its core, an issue of population management. From the perspective of the individual, contact with an infected person may or may not result in infection. This uncertainty grants people a degree of freedom to act as they wish. However, the ideas behind digital contact tracing falsely label a failure of population management as a failure of individual action, and risks depriving people of that freedom. After all, the ability to track chains of transmission brings with it the ability to track all personal relationships, and the question remains as to whether the development of such technology is truly for the better.
Safety of the population or freedom of the individual—under the current state of emergency, many feel no choice but to believe society should prioritize the former. However, the issue is not such a simple dichotomy.
One day, the COVID-19 pandemic will end. When it does, the consequences of not having set aside fears of infection to discuss freedom and privacy will be vast. In this age with negligible difference between the West and China, it would be prudent to take a step back and reassess the purposes of information technology.