Covid-19: New forms of rationality and liberation
Published 17 April 2020 by Denis "Jaromil" Roio
If you think you can play blind like Ray Charles: you are a fool. New correspondance on proximity-tracing by Denis Roio, hacker, social entrepreneur and privacy expert also known as Jaromil.
Denis Roio (aka Jaromil) is a researcher in philosophy of technology, artist and software artisan whose creations are endorsed by the Free Software Foundation. He has been involved in Bitcoin since the early days and since 2000 he has been dedicated to building Dyne.org, a software house gathering the contributions of a growing number of developers who value social responsibility above profit. Recently, Denis Roio has been involved in two European research projects, D-CENT and DECODE, both focusing on “Decentralised Citizen Engaged Technologies” and a “Decentralized Citizen Owned Data Ecosystem”.
“The coronavirus will destroy many institutions already threatened by digital technologies. It will also necessitate increasing surveillance and other immunological measures against the virus, as well as against terrorism and threats to national security.” — Yuk Hui
A week ago I wrote my second post here, which became even more popular than the first: it was translated and republished in French by Makery and it motivated a very talented group of hackers to start a community effort in building privacy-preserving apps for proximity-tracing.
The post above has prompted questions, reactions and also criticism I’d like to address and interact with now. There is another important reason for me to write again: to connect my reasoning to the post that Luca Recano has made on how “code acts as a new kind of grammar for social and ecosystemic relations, a protocol to reboot how humans, machines and environments interact”.
I will do my best to do three things in this post:
1. Gather a dense primer on scientific research about “Susceptible-Infected-Recovered” (SIR) models and epidemic processes in complex networks analysis.
2. Describe the reasons behind our collective effort at Dyne.org to develop a set of tools to interact with Proximity Tracing technologies (to scan, visualize and analyze traffic).
3. Draw a techno-political scenario in which to inscribe and recognize current tensions around the growing need for more surveillance in Europe.
And then of course I’ll enjoy writing through one of the nights of this interminable lockdown in Italy, a place just diagnosed by S&P with a -9.9% GDP decrease in 2020.
It’s hard to play blind
If you think you can play blind like Ray Charles: you are a fool. True that some people have a special talent: I was once massaged by a blind man in Jakarta and I’ll never forget how well he knew my body.
But people who can work well without field of vision are rare.
In the world there must be medics, hospitals and health institutions that can play well blind, in Italy for instance virologists as Andrea Crisanti and Ernesto Burgio have shown incredible capability to understand what was going on in the “darkness” and to realize the most important thing to do was testing. Without updated information about epidemic spread and subsequent ability to plan equipment and resources any organisation can be destabilized by events like the COVID19.
“At the moment we don’t know what’s going to happen in six months. All we know is that unless we stop transmission now, the health service will collapse. Yep, that’s the only thing we know for sure.”
— Graham Medley, chairman of SPI-M UK
The problem of this pandemic is not the virus alone — which is highly virulent and deadly — but is how little we know about our surrounding, while dealing with asymptomatic and immune people and an incubation period of two weeks: such uncertainties lead to unavoidable solutions like lockdowns.
We will have to face an economic crisis of epic proportions whose direct cause are the lockdown measures.
Herd Sensing and Health
We are not surviving through a failure of the health-care sector.
The origin of this failure is deeper: it is epistemological, political and cultural. Once this failure occurs we can’t blame lockdown measures either: in southern and central Europe so far this harsh procedure is unavoidable and even the numbers we have at hand (likely one figure lower than reality) can prove it.
Ask yourself now, what the hell the “cyber-security industry” was busy doing?
Everything will look like a counter-intelligence operation. Future societies may well be about equipping everyone with “personal intelligence devices”.
Here we are going beyond Matt’s concept of “Self-Sensing and Health” to a new dimension in which we’ll be “Herd-Sensing”. Going to a concert, to a party, to the gym or to sing in a choir will hardly ever be the same again; we will be so overwhelmed with smetvrees (Dutch only, sorry) and health concerns about public and social life that we’ll need a cybernetic device to handle them for us and our family.
Considering the capacity of hospitals, the availability of tests and future vaccines, it makes sense that we are able to assess our own risk based on what we have done — and others around us have done — for the past two weeks or one month. From an epidemiological perspective this will lead to a qualitatively different solution from blindly testing all the population disregarding different exposure conditions.
Some ask if the benefits of this monitoring are scientifically proven: mates, here we go with papers and articles you never wanted to need in your life about Susceptible-Infected-Recovered analysis and the likes.
• Modeling HIV Epidemic Under Contact Tracing — The Cuban Case
• Identifying and quantifying potential super-spreaders in social networks
• Super-Spreader Identification Using Meta-Centrality
• Identification of influential spreaders in complex networks
• Epidemic processes in complex networks
This bibliography could go on and on, this is just a good selection for the curious and the skeptics out there.
Never stop being skeptical by the way, and thanks for questioning.
Hacking with care
Mostly for the best, sometimes for the worst, hackers have been the heroes of the last decade. Beyond the surface of the tech startup hype, our heroes had more to do with fighting government corruption, improving journalism, redefining integrity in intelligence and nurturing a modern passion for internationalist social justice.
With the COVID19 emergency the hacker ethos is challenged more than ever by the looming dichotomy between privacy and safety.
Setting that aside for a moment — will come back to it later —its worth stating that hackers are like developers: we care about our surrounding, its just a bit more complex because it includes more networked places and people.
A lot of hackers are responding to this emergency with great passion, investing precious time and resources. To all of you I dedicate this video by Jeremy Zimmerman and the folks at hacking with care: please take the time to watch it… and breath.
While the televised heroes of the coming decade will likely be medics, hackers are still sexy to the rescue — and for good reasons. All sort of tech will be needed to improve our access to information and its interpretation, and we shall be careful that such tech respects by design human and civic rights. Because developers, just like architects, can make long lasting damages to society if designs are not… well thought through.
We are working on a mobile app to offer an alternative to the Dutch #coronaApp that is privacy-preserving and decentralized. It will adhere to the technological demands of the ‘Veilig tegen corona’ manifesto (https://t.co/dzt05ysf6i) 1/6
— Dyne.org (@DyneOrg) April 15, 2020
Let me propose what’s well thought through here: it is participated, shared, lived with passion and joy; it’s not a product, but a community. I’m talking about a new sort of intelligence here, somehow close to the way academic research works and whose values should be nurtured to replace the failing rhetoric of cyber-security before its too late.
“Cyber-security ranks context though risk assessment based on money lost on incidents versus the cost of their mitigation. However like contextual privacy, designs must be contextual of human, social and cultural needs and aspirations.” — Adam Burns
If you feel like watching a debate about values to nurture: here is one we had in Europe some times ago, challenging the underpinnings of the security industry of today, made of growing complexities and dependencies instead of simplicity and backward compatibility.
To operate this change we shall take great attention to distinguish between community projects made of digital solidarity and their marketed clones.
“A digital solidarity is not a call to use more Facebook, Twitter, or WeChat, but to get out of the vicious competition of mono-technological culture, to produce a techno-diversity through alternative technologies and their corresponding forms of life and ways of dwelling on the planet and in the cosmos.”
— Yuk Hui, One hundred years of crisis
This is a difficult distinction to be made, for two reasons.
First: because this now needs to be done in a rush. Errors are less affordable every day and we are already sitting on (yet another) ticking bomb as the security industry is asked to take the surveillance state to the next level.
Second: because it is still difficult for most policy-makers to distinguish between “solutionist” approaches and community development paths that leverage public sovereignty over digital platforms.
“Corona app! yes or no?”
Ok boomers, I’ll make it simple.
A lot of very good policy recommendations came out this week. This is actually worth of record: the techno-political response of European institutions to counter app-making surveillance-state plans has been amazing.
The EU Commission has published the toolbox, a paneuropean approach to contact tracing apps against #Covid_19. It is very clear: tech should be privacy-enhancing, open source and decentralised. Governments should start working #DP3T https://t.co/YJeNyGNB0P https://t.co/hwVayyMEND
— Francesca Bria (@francesca_bria) April 16, 2020
I’m very proud of the work of my colleagues. I’ve quoted the CCC guidelines in my previous post, here I’ll list two more notable resources:
• EDRi calls for fundamental rights-based responses to COVID-19
• Protect our health and protect our rights
Also less reformist, more revolutionary: folks at LQDN have put up a banner “against stopcovid”. IMHO our dear French cousins may be underestimating once again the emergency
We are working on privacy-preserving proximity-tracing tech at Dyne.org: we started implementing proximity-tracing open source software also for watches and keyrings that can be shared among people to help scramble identities while monitoring the threats of a night out.
We won’t even stop here, since now we are planning an upgrade of our Dowse.eu project to be able to scan bluetooth traffic and make it visible: we imagine one likes to run this also at home, either to know the status of those stepping in or to make sure that no-one is running a tracker. We imagine artists will want to play with all this so we’ll make the traffic available via hackable protocols as MQTT, OSC and websockets. For a quick introduction to our dowsing device you can watch this interview I’ve made years ago:
This is now tech for the Cthulhucene age, I guess.
All fine, then?
No, it’s not all fine.
There is an avalanche coming and it’s right to worry about privacy, because surveillance will ramp up and our data will be used to reduce our civil rights to demonstrate, strike, say or do anything out of the (new) norm.
The economic conditions of everyone will worsen, many families will have no means to pay their bills, workers may be forced to run surveillance apps on their phones, many entrepreneurs will have liquidity problems in the best case and the necessity to convert all their business in the worst.
“The romanticization of “the quarantine is a class privilege!” – Johnny E. Williams
To not even mention the condition of migrants and other economically-weak minorities: they won’t be discriminated by a viral infection, but by the crisis of a system that already pervades everything.
While I’m reassured by the presence of prof. Mariana Mazzucato in the 2nd phase emergency team in Italy, I find it worrying to see that the first move of the team leader (TELCO CEO type, adviser at Verizon) was that of pulling the brake on the proximity-app development namely because of difficulties to link people’s names with SIM cards.
Hypothesis of solution adopted? mobile and fixed-line phone interception.
We are talking about old-school ETSI protocol interception from the ’90 here. Imagine somewhere deep in this surveillance-state there is a carabiniere listening for COVID19 phone-calls.
Fortunately today we know this plan did not go through and someone took the care to translate and read out loud the European guidelines, just in time.
To conclude, jokes and gossip aside…
“We also need states that know how to negotiate, so that the benefits of public investment return to the public. A killer virus has exposed major weaknesses within Western capitalist economies. Now that governments are on a war footing, we have an opportunity to fix the system. If we don’t, we will stand no chance against the third major crisis — an increasingly uninhabitable planet — and all the smaller crises that will come with it in the years and decades ahead.”
… I think this quote by prof. Mazzucato lands a strong important statement. But then — I argue — the Italian state has to stop being a laboratory and ship just a simple and minimalist version of itself, ready to facilitate the growth potential of the complexity that inhabits its territory. Resilient and community-based development — I believe — can do the rest.
“Without making space for new forms of rationality and new forms of liberation there won’t be neither a fix for the old institutions, nor a birth of new ones.”
Read first correspondance by Denis Roio.