The Short and Long of It: social coordination in times of crisis

The world is currently confronting the terrible tradeoffs we face whenever social coordination relies on central institutions. As COVID-19 spreads and our health, social and economic systems are threatened, a consistent debate surfaces on a thousand fronts: how much power should governments, corporations, and agencies have to shape our behavior and fate?

The terrible tradeoff in action

China effectively stemmed the spread of coronavirus through its population. They did so with the largest mass quarantine in the history of the world. A month ago most in the west looked at the communist party’s measures as disturbingly cruel. Now, as it spreads in our own borders, some regret that we cannot act with such speed and precision.

Liberals in the USA find themselves mentally torn. On the one hand is a true belief in the role government should play to coordinate, aid, and protect the health of a large nation. On the other is complete distrust of the man at the helm and clear evidence of the failures of agencies like the FDA.

Israel has enabled emergency spy powers that enable the government to track those infected and enforce quarantines. It may be effective, it may be for the greater good, it may even be the right call in the situation. But how else might they use this power, once enabled? Governments in Europe — typically quite cautious with surveillance and centralization of personal data — are also starting to enable smartphone-based tracking.

All over the world, people are their previous assumptions about personal privacy, liberty, and the tradeoffs that make sense.

This balancing act between cohesive coordination and broader agency is everywhere. Do we let the FDA make decisions on what tests are safe or not, or live with the consequences of widespread testing some of which may be faulty or even dangerous? Should city governments be allowed to force good actors indoors, because some carefree or risk-tolerant actors may endanger others?

We have to decide what role we want corporations, philanthropies and other institutions to play too. Sharing test results, medical records, even biometrics and GPS data may help track and trace outbreaks and let us use technology to stem the tide efficiently. But how is this data being shared? Who are we going to trust with access to where we are and what we are doing, all the time?

A false tradeoff

Responding to the threat of COVID-19, we are being forced all around the world to choose between:

(a) Ineffective coordination entered into freely by individual parties. We know that this will not effectively stem the society-wide spread and crisis.

(b) More effective coordination from central institutions, which may have power to encourage or coerce effective measures. We know this same power can and will eventually be abused.

There is no right answer on this spectrum, it will vary by circumstance and values. However, it’s not a question we should even need to be asking at all. This tradeoff is only forced on us because we rely on these centralized institutions for our social coordination.

Some of these — governments — ostensibly represent the values of their citizenry. Others represent their shareholders or special interests. This presents 2 absolutely immovable problems. First, we live in a global and interdependent world, and so the actions of one body will have huge externality impacts on the others. Interests between these groups diverge. Second, those making decisions within each group are not perfect representatives of the group itself. The longer the group lasts, the more its principals and its agents are likely to get further apart. Interests even within the groups diverge.

This is the long-standing problem of governance: how to govern group behavior given the incentive and coordination problems. It is ever-present. But it is being seen more crisply than ever because of the massive and immediate danger of Covid-19. It is abundantly clear to everyone, even those with strong and extreme views, that there are downsides to less central coordination and huge risks to giving centralized groups more control. Our starting situation puts us in a lose-lose.

While it’s most clear with a crisis like COVID-19, the same dyanmics are present in many of our other large societal issues. How should we confront climate change (which is too far away to force such a clear tradeoff)? How much should we really fear big tech companies with all our data? How should we police gun ownership?

While the circumstances change, there are consistent takeaways:

  1. We live in a global world, and that’s not changing (even if we trend towards more nationalism).
  2. A global world is interdependent, and will always require massive amounts of coordination and sharing across parties
  3. If the infrastructure for this coordination is centralized, those centralized institutions will be able to abuse that power no matter how many safeguards and regulations are put in place
  4. Eventually, central institutions’ incentives diverge from the participants (users, citizens) and they will, given enough time, misuse or abuse their power
  5. This causes harm to all the participants, and if the governance is centralized they will have no recourse beyond extreme measures (strikes, violence, disruption) or hoping those with power won’t abuse it

The only way to coordinate globally and long-term in a safe way is to use decentralized infrastructure that gives control over usage, participation, permissions, and duration to the participants.

This would enable all of us to share our data — GPS, vitals, health status — during this crisis without worrying that our government or corporations will have endless access to this data forever. When it was over, those institutions would lose access, unable to continue tracking and surveiling against our wishes. Today, the only way governments, telecoms, or big tech can turn on their surveillance capability to stop COVID is because they actually have this ability all the time. We need to flip the model so it’s only possible with consent — citizens and users must have the control and choice directly.

How might this work? We could each stream our personal data to our own data stores, encrypted so only we could access it. During times of crisis, we could choose to share this data — anonymized or not — with services that aggregate, analyze, track and help combat the crisis. They would not have access to the source of the data (our phones’ GPS) but rather the data store we are sharing with them. This is what they need to track cases, see if there may have been contact with others, alert those at risk, and even enforce quarantines. At any time, we can turn off that data access. They have permission to help during the crisis, not to snoop forever after. We would make the decision to give up our privacy in that crisis, only for that crisis. All of this tech exists today.

The Short, the Long

To fight COVID-19, we need to the take immediate and short-term action. Governments and corporations around the world need to play a role. The efforts should be appropriate (see EFF’s guide to protecting civil liberties), but it’s a fast-changing situation where some compromise will be needed. We cannot fight this otherwise, and we need to accept that — our values for privacy and liberty are not absolute, in a crisis.

But we cannot forget where we make compromises, because we know long-term institutions will take advantage of them. Companies like Google and Facebook will gladly provide these services in exchange for our data, and that they will use and abuse it down the road in ways we never consented to. We could choose to trust other 3rd parties, but what happens when they go the same route or are simply acquired? You might be fine with Fitbit having your data because you trust them and don’t see how they could abuse it. But do you want Google to have all your activity records post acquisition? Maybe we were okay trading some data to that battery-saving app a few years ago, but when Facebook acquired Onvavo they scooped up all that data about you too.

On Friday, March 27, Christopher Allen led a remembrance for those who lost their lives in WWII, in part due to the centralized collection of data. A far higher percentage of Jews were killed in the Netherlands than elsewhere because the civil service there had kept such accurate records of its population. This was meant for good, and was used for it until World War II. But when personal data is in the hands of central bodies, it can be abused and used for evil later as well. In this case, those records made it far easier for Nazis to track down Jews in the country than elsewhere. This might be an extreme case, but the pattern is consistent.

The only solution is to start building on the infrastructure that ensures we do not need to make these tradeoffs in the future; that we can coordinate effectively and urgently amongst us in a crisis, without worrying about sacrificing our liberty long-term. This is the promise of distributed, p2p technologies.

Some technologies, like Tor and WebRTC, are quite established. Others like blockchain and IPFS are newer and maturing now. Together, they create the backbone for a more resilient, community-controlled internet. They give us the ability to share, connect and transact online without giving up our privacy, control, or agency about whom to trust when. This model sets us up to confront crises in our society without the tradeoff of coordination versus liberty.

If you’re looking for more info on this ecosystem or how to make this happen faster, come discuss with us in our 3Box community.

"The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it's to post the wrong answer." (Cunningham's Law) | 3BoxLabs.com