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The Fine Line Between Care and Surveillance

Discover the line between care and surveillance.
The Fine Line Between Care And Surveillance

Even prior to Covid-19, the team had observed that the smartphone simultaneously facilitates our capacity for extending both care and also surveillance. We form WhatsApp groups to monitor and look after frail parents, but then these same parents are anxious about their loss of autonomy. Younger parents might monitor their children’s smartphones. They almost always see this as care, while their children mostly regard this as _surveillance). In many social relationships, people were already carefully negotiating this fine balance between care and surveillance prior to the pandemic – a need that had become more acute thanks to the smartphone.

The graphic below summarises the concept of the fine line between care and surveillance:

A graphic containing visual and written text elements entitled 'the fine line between care and surveillance', which is shown in a green horizontal banner at the top. The first portion from the top to the bottom shows two panels - in the left panel, the writing says 'smartphones convey care and affection', and there are two female figures who are both on their phones and connected by a dotted arrow on top of which there is a smartphone, signifying the device's capacity to deliver affection and care. In the right panel the writing says 'at the same time, smartphones also facilitate surveillance', and we can see a man talking on a smartphone who is 'followed' by a floating CCTV. The camera is next to a bracket which contains symbols for commercial, state or political, and social surveillance. Under this we have another green banner which says 'track and trace is a technology but balancing care and surveillance is a moral issue', and under this second banner we have the bottom half of the infographic, which has an old-fashion weight scale at the centre: one half of the scale shows the word 'care' along side a heart while the other shows the word surveillance alongside a camera symbol. On the side of 'care' there are two figures with speech bubbles expressing views sympathetic to the idea that tracking people via phones is care - the quotes say 'the collective good is more important than individual privacy' and 'surveillance isn't doing me any personal harm'. On the surveillance side of the scale are two quotes in speech bubbles from people who think track and trace technology is surveillance more than it is care. They say: 'care is being used as an excuse to extract even more data' and 'this is an abuse of my right to privacy'.

The concern over surveillance feeds into a much wider anxiety about the potential of digital devices. A best selling book in 2019 by Shoshana Zuboff was called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Thanks to whistleblowing events such as the revelations of Edward Snowden, or the claims that personal data was used to interfere in elections in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we may be forgiven for also thinking of our smartphone as a kind of spy in our pocket. Yet at the very same time, there have been many examples in this week’s course that show the capacity of smartphones for extending care.

Care and Surveillance During COVID-19

With the advent of Covid-19, our team’s observations about the fine line between care and surveillance became the world’s observation. This was particularly evident thanks to the development of contact tracing smartphone technologies during the pandemic. These were developed in order to determine who someone with the virus has previously been in contact with.

Contact tracing apps exploited the smartphones’ ability to closely monitor an individual. The technology itself was developed in many regions across the world, yet the response could not have been more heterogeneous. Contact tracing was quickly and often quite successfully deployed in countries such as South Korea, while in the US and parts of Europe, there was much more caution about the potential intrusion into the private domain, and deployment was generally less successful. The reason is that this fine balance between care and surveillance is not a technological issue, but a matter of moral adjudication and cultural values.

In the previous step, we referred to a website that hosted anthropologists’ contributions and that we helped develop called One of the questions posed to the contributors was about this balance between care and surveillance. The posts on the site, particularly the ones under the ‘Care and Surveillance’ section, help illustrate how this varied considerably across the globe.

In our Irish fieldsites, for example, many people had worked in education and health and tended to closely associate with the state and take on the citizen’s role in monitoring each other’s compliance with lockdown restrictions.

The meme below, taken from a Facebook group in Ireland, is an example of discussing this monitoring in a humorous way.

Meme circulating in WhatsApp groups in Ireland during lockdown in 2020, showing a cat sitting up and looking out the window in a suspicious manner. the text says 'me looking out the window at two people walking, trying to determine if they are related'

Circulating this meme on Facebook was obviously intended as a humorous comment on the way people took on the state’s concern to monitor compliance with regulations, but each region and country faced its own issues. For example, a seaside resort in Brazil approved a surveillance drone because they felt visiting tourists threatened their health. Another example comes from China, where many regard the heavy surveillance measures during COVID as evidence that the government was taking care of its citizens. In Japan, some people were concerned by the government’s decision to use LINE, the most popular messaging app, to deliver surveys that asked about people’s health and whether they had been abroad recently (all of these examples come from reports on the site and can be read using the links below). Laura Haapio-Kirk was in touch with her research participants throughout lockdown and created an illustration that explains their dilemma:

Cartoon by Laura Haapio Kirk depicting attitudes to tracking the virus in Japan and concerns around the concept of government tracking and surveillance. The first panel shows a Japanese woman, one of Laura's participants, looking at her smartphone and saying she had heard that some people in Japan were refusing to answer government surveys about whether they had symptoms, because they were worried someone would come and get them if they said they had a temperature. Her name is shown to be Komatsu san and she is based in Kyoto. A close up of what is on her smartphone reveals a survey designed and disseminated via the messaging app LINE. Next to this close up is a sample of the questions contained within this survey. Below this is some text written by Laura about how in Japan, the virus has brought into focus the way care is reliant on monitoring, and how many in Japan are uncomfortable with government monitoring, which is why the survey was delivered through a less formal app such as LINE. The panel below this explains that many people in Japan are already subject to a lot of social surveillance. One woman is shown sitting down and explaining that someone she knows went into a local sake shop and asked them to close, adding that this woman probably thinks of herself as the stay-at-home police. More explanations about the lockdown in Japan are presented under this and the woman adds that the virus has made people bolder about correcting the behaviour of others. Below this, some text says that the virus is not only about physical health but social health too. The panel below depicts this and explains the Japanese term jishuku, which means self-restraint and is related to the concept of Japanese village 'mura' culture where everyone watches each other very closely. A lady peering out over what looks like a rice paddy is shown asking a fictional visitor to not come into her house as she is worried about what other people will think - she asks to talk outside. Her name is Wada san and she is from Laura's rural fieldsite, in Kochi prefecture. Laura also shows how some elderly people in rural sites in Japan are being cared for virtually through sensors placed in their house which detect if they have an accident or fall. Some text explains that many carers now keep in virtual contact with their patients. The final bit of text at the very bottom concludes that reactions to the virus in Japan reveal how people navigate the balance between care and surveillance. At the very bottom a text next to an asterisk says the names have been changed. A second bit of text next to two asterisks says that for more on care in Japan, one can read Iza Kavedzija's book 'Making meaningful lives' (2019)

The people in our field site of al-Quds worried that any monitoring by the state might reinforce surveillance whose purposes related more to political than health concerns. By contrast, in South Korea, the government was re-elected partly because of popular support for their use of track and trace technologies. Often, these issues confirmed local political differences. Democratic-voting New Orleans found itself having a different attitude to contact tracing to the republican state in which the city is situated. Local state governors in Brazil had very different attitudes from President Bolsonaro.

What lessons were learnt from our research and from The events of that year certainly acted as powerful evidence for the importance of an anthropological perspective. This is because, ultimately, it was cultural values rather than technology that determined the local outcome. Secondly, our research, which had taken place before Covid-19, showed that nearly everyone has considerable experience in this fine balance between care and surveillance. This suggested to us that populations could have been much more widely consulted and involved in decisions about track and trace technologies, which might have made people more willing to support their deployment, something which governments generally failed to appreciate.

To read the contributions we summarised above in more detail, follow the links below. You can also read the entire ‘care and surveillance’ section of this site by going to the very last link. There, you will find a map that shows what countries the contributions have come from.

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An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health

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