Data justice Data security Datafication

Data in crisis: how states are balancing between precaution and control?

The situation

The talk about crisis has been on a tip of everyone’s tongue for quite a while. At the end of 2018, The World Financial Review was predicting that 2020 will be the breaking point for many economies around the world. The end of global stimulus packages, increasing inflation, trade disputes and ever-increasing interest rates were all said to trigger the recession. Many well-known publications, such as The Guardian, at the end of the last decade were also talking about a crisis of financial origin. But not many sources have been discussing the possibility of a virus which would affect the world at such a great scale. Although it is not the first pandemic the world has seen – Spanish flu, Asian flu, 1918 flu, HIV/AIDS – just to name a few which have happened in the last century (MPHonline, 2020). However, the world has never been more interconnected as there are many ways of affordable travelling, both for business and leisure. The ICT has also changed how the world is set-up nowadays – people to have much greater access to vast information sources, interact online and be part of interconnected digital community. While the data which is generated either intentionally by creating digital traces online, or as a by-product of using the technology, has changed the way various stakeholders treat one another and interact with each other. In the light of COVID-19 and various restrictions and lock-downs around the world, it is interesting to look at how the treatment of data, especially personal data, has been changing around the world and what may be the implications for the social contract between the state and the society.



The role of the state during the crisis

The role of the state during various types of crisis has been a favorable subject of many scholars. Stone (2002) has stated that after a period of financial instability, government’s intervention and strong lead is vital. To stabilise the economy in the country, it should take the lead in establishing restructuring priorities, addressing market failures, reforming the legal and tax systems, and, perhaps most importantly, dealing with obstructions posed by powerful interest groups. Carlson et al. (2018) in their study on refugee crisis recognised that frequent policy and opinion shifts bring uncertainty and distress; hence, clear and concise decision-making could bring stability and order. Boin (2016), after analysing a number of global crisis and identifying what worked as effective leadership, concluded that swift decision-making, openness about the situation and clear action plan with concrete stakeholders should be at the top of the list. Since COVID-19 started spreading rapidly around the world, many governments have taken bold decisions to restrict the movement of people and goods and impose temporary behavioural restrictions. As many people are still not following recommendations and guidelines, more and more strict rules and regulations started appearing. As new controls and even laws prioritising common benefit against personal privacy rights keep on coming, the debate on how much information about us should the state have is only increasing.

The changing landscape of surveillance around the world

China has been well-known for invasive personal data collection for quite a while (BBC, 2019). As the country was hit by COVID-19 at the end of last year, the state mobilised its mass surveillance tools, from drones to CCTV cameras, to monitor quarantined people and track the spread of the coronavirus. Many other governments have been seen to do similar – mandatory surveillance programs claim sensitive information, like user locations, without the ability for citizens to opt out. South Korea’s widely praised response to the coronavirus relies on the capacity to identify potential carriers through surveillance tools — like cell phone tracking, extensive CCTV analysis and re-creating purchase histories by mapping cashless transactions (Washington Post, 2020). Lithuania is imposing mobile phone tracking for those who are under strict quarantine regime – the cheat to just leave one’s phone at home and go for a walk has been solved by asking people to send a selfie with a GPS location whenever prompted. Singapore has also been using a combination of location data, video camera footage and credit card information (CNBC, 2020). Italians, Germans and Austrians have been warned that they should not disobey if they are quarantined as phone tracking is also taking place (Forbes, 2020). This may provide better data to support efforts at contact tracing, but the downside is increased intrusion into individual privacy. Israel’s government has received harsh criticism for issuing new rules on using technological means to track citizens to assist in containing the coronavirus epidemic. Three petitions have been filled against the new regulations and Israeli High Court of Justice set some limits on people tracking via the use of their data as well as using power, especially by the police (Policy Review, 2020).




Some countries take a different approach – the voluntary data surveillance. U.K. officials are reportedly building an app for voluntary mass surveillance, asking citizens to temporarily share location data as an act of patriotic duty. Singapore has rolled out a similar app to augment its aggressive contact tracing strategy, boosting efforts to identify anyone who might have crossed paths with an infected person. But voluntary programs generally provide less-high quality data than compulsory surveillance (Washington Post, 2020). This could be due to the fact that people are less likely to reveal something they were not supposed to do, e.g. movements around the area, although they are restricted. Hence, incredibly valuable information may be withheld.


Digital footprint

Every step we take online (or if it is taken on our behalf) leaves a digital trace. With every click or online interaction, we create digital traces (also known as ‘digital footprints’). They usually are automatically captured and provide a detailed record of a person’s online activity. The production of digital data provides opportunities to perform thorough analysis and gain insights about individuals, the circles of people they create around them, their behaviour patterns, demographic attributes and personalities. Also, those digital footprints enable categorisation and clustering of people. Read et al. (2016) have noted that with this increasing access to data, in the humanitarian sector the reliance and desire for it has been steadily growing. Research shows that by only having snippets of information, it is possible to come close to figuring out a person’s identity. For instance, personality researchers have suggested that individuals leave behavioural residue (unconscious traces of actions that may objectively depict their identity). Thus, behavioural residue such as language patterns, smartphone metrics and meta-data (e.g. posts, followers, browsing history, comments, etc.), provide opportunities to infer demographic attributes with computational techniques (e.g. natural language processing, machine learning) that would be too complex for humans to process. Although digital footprints have been a desirable item by many corporations and institutions, until now there has been a lot of emphasis on personal data and questioning who is using it and for what purpose. More on digital footprints: Footprints in digital space – a grey field?


Are we pausing on data justice?

Since the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018, data protection and data privacy have been ‘hot topics’ not only in Europe, but in other continents as well. Big tech companies have been criticised for trying to get our data as a by-pass product of using their devices or programs. Google has been accused for using Android apps to track user movements and behaviour (Fast Company). People had been vocal about what they think are their rights and property and governments were reacting. In 2019 San Francisco became the first US city to ban the use of facial recognition technology (BBC, 2019). At the end of 2019 Forbes announced that data privacy will be the most important issue in the upcoming decade.

As Taylor (2017) describes it, data justice is fairness in the way people are made visible, represented and treated as a result of their production of digital data. She proposes a three-pillar model which may determine ethical ways of dealing with datafication.

Three-pillar model for data justice by Linnet Taylor

The first pillar addresses ‘Visibility’ – the risks to group privacy through collective profiling and the extent to which data can be considered a public good. The second pillar ‘Engagement with technology’ addresses the right to choose which technologies to use (or not to use at all) and ‘opt-in’ or ‘opt-out’ of desired or undesired databases. The last pillar ‘Non-discrimination’ explores the possibility to challenge how the data is used and ensuring data is not discriminating due to samples or AI applications which repeat the same mistakes.

Back in 2017 the proposed framework made a lot of sense as personal vs. corporate/governmental relationship has been central in terms of data security questions. With COVID-19 the relationship has rather changed – now public well-being and quick decision making are important elements affecting it. This begs the question whether such models become less significant in the light of the crisis. Should we be pausing on data justice for the benefit of public well-being?

How everything may be changing and what are the implications for the future?

Politico in their recent article ‘Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How.’ suggest that COVID-19 will reshape society in lasting ways. So did other crisis, such as 9/11 in terms of surveillance and 2008 financial crisis in terms planning and budgeting. But privacy experts have already raised concerns about the approach chosen by many governments.  How data is collected, used and stored and the potential for authorities to maintain heightened levels of surveillance even after the coronavirus pandemic is over – have all been identified as important areas to discuss.

 “We could so easily end up in a situation where we empower local, state or federal government to take measures in response to this pandemic that fundamentally change the scope of American civil rights.” , – said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a non-profit organisation in Manhattan (New York Times, 2020).

As an example, he pointed to a law enacted by New York State this month that gives Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo unlimited authority to rule by executive order during state crises like pandemics and hurricanes. The law allows him to issue emergency response directives that could overrule any local regulations.

Edward Snowden, the former CIA contractor who exposed NSA surveillance programs, recently spoke to Danish Broadcasting Corporation correspondent Henrik Moltke about surveillance in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we see emergency measures passed, particularly today, they tend to be sticky,” Snowden said. “The emergency tends to be expanded. Then the authorities become comfortable with some new power. They start to like it.”

Snowden seems to be especially concerned about the long-term implications of strengthening the national surveillance infrastructure. Granted, the surveillance measures we may deploy today — say, using biometric facial recognition technology — might help to slow the transmission of COVID-19. What’s more, these measures might not noticeably curtail our civil liberties, even if they stick around after the pandemic ends (Big Think, 2020).



With COVID-19 disrupting lives of millions of people and destroying global economy around the world, effective crisis management has been top priority. During other crisis, such as 2008 financial break-down, Asian flu and various terrorist attacks, coherent and concise strategy by the state played an ultimate role in solving the situation, mobilising resources and setting-up the society and economy for the road of growth and well-being. Many sources agree that the changes implemented during the crisis have long-lasting effects. At the age of technology and data surveillance, the eye has been turned to how much power will governments have over ownership of people’s data and how they will be using it. Many countries are imposing their own safety and security measures and there is no unified approach. GDPR has been applied to all of the EU, however, nowadays each country chooses how much data it collects and how much it reveals to the public as precaution measures, e.g. where does a person live, how old is he or she, etc. It seems that there is no clear answer and in light of the crisis it is difficult to draw a clear line where should data privacy end. The more important question is how the states will be acting after the crisis is over. History shows that restrictions imposed during a crisis tend to stay much longer than needed.

Personal reflections

I really enjoyed exploring the subject of datafication and data exploration and its impact on society and indiviaduals. I have worked in the ICT field for quite a while and, in terms of development, technologies have always been glorified, proposing that they will help to bridge many gaps, bring more gender equality. They are also said to enable the underprivileged to access information and become more aware, more capable and more empowered. I wanted to dig deeper into what lays behind this mass datafication, social media activism and other aspects of the digital world. Also, things like GDPR and the increasing attention to data privacy were said to be giving more ownership to the individuals over their data. However, in light of coronavirus, the unexpected is happening – people are loosing control over their data for the benefit of the society’s well-being and it is going to be interesting to explore even further where the borderline is and how to determine whether the state is using personal data for security or for control.


The photos have been downloaded from The links to the news sources can be found in the text, specific authors cited in the post can be seen below:

  • Boin, A. et al. 2017: The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure. 2nd, fully revised and updated edition, Cambridge University Press;
  • Carlson et al. 2018: Rumors and Refugees: How Government-Created Information Vacuums Undermine Effective Crisis Management, International Studies Quarterly, Volume 62, Issue 3, September 2018, Pages 671–685;
  • Read, R. et al. 2016: Data hubris? Humanitarian information systems and the mirage of technology, Third World Quarterly, 37:8, 1314-1331;
  • Stone, M. R. 2002: Corporate Sector Restructuring : The Role of Government in Times of Crisis. International Monetary Fund;
  • Taylor, L. 2017: What is data justice? The case for connecting digital rights and freedoms on the global level, Big Data & Society, 4:2.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *