I was reading a post by Yuval Noah Hariri about the World after Corona Virus. It drove home the reason that made me focus on Privacy, Personal Data, Decentralization and Democratization of data, algorithms and manufacturing. Here is a good definition of Decentralization.

The last few weeks have been intense on many fronts. We are seeing unprecedented challenges we are facing as humanity. A number of people have referred this time to the times of World Wars. They may be right. We are now under attack by an invisible enemy, which has already infiltrated most of the countries and if you read about how creative and ingenious nature can be, here is an article that describes how the Corona Virus invades the human cell and the articles hypothesis is that this virus is not Man made. Nature, evolution and mutation are far more intelligent than us humans.

Centralized surveillance is not the answer

Coming back to the title of this post, it is in times like these that individual freedom and liberty gets sacrificed for the common good. I think we need to think and act differently this time around, because as Yuval says in the article the world after corona virus is going to look a lot different and the decisions that we make today are going to stay with us. The things that we need to resist are Centralized Surveillance, however magical someone sells it to us. What do I mean by Centralized Surveillance? read the excerpt below…

In their battle against the coronavirus epidemic several governments have already deployed the new surveillance tools. The most notable case is China. By closely monitoring people’s smartphones, making use of hundreds of millions of face-recognising cameras, and obliging people to check and report their body temperature and medical condition, the Chinese authorities can not only quickly identify suspected coronavirus carriers, but also track their movements and identify anyone they came into contact with. A range of mobile apps warn citizens about their proximity to infected patients.

Yuval Hariri in the article on FT link here

This is a dangerous precedent, China can do this but those of us who value our privacy, liberty and freedom should resist this kind of surveillance. We need to believe that all of us are capable of making decisions that is in the best interest of ourselves, our communities and the world. This can only happen if everyone of us have the knowledge, tools and wisdom to be proactive.

Centralised monitoring and harsh punishments aren’t the only way to make people comply with beneficial guidelines. When people are told the scientific facts, and when people trust public authorities to tell them these facts, citizens can do the right thing even without a Big Brother watching over their shoulders. A self-motivated and well-informed population is usually far more powerful and effective than a policed, ignorant population.

FT Article cited above

Personal Data empowers the individual

Here is a simple example of what I mean. I am a big fan of the Oura Ring, I tell everyone who would listen that they need to get it. The ring allows me to monitor micro movements in my body temperature. Why is this useful? well, if you are able to notice that your body temperature is rising above the normal range you can take various precautions, for example in the current scenario of the Corona virus, you can self quarantine well before you become a contagion.

This personal data is under my control and the algorithm that tells me something is wrong is on my phone which I still believe is under my control and anything done with that device is based on my consent. The last of the human agency is going to be our personal health data. I am a strong believer and proponent that it has to be in the domain of the individual. I can consent to giving my data to serve the community, another individual or even to support my agency. There are a number of startups that are building solutions that align with this premise. An empowered individual will act in the best self interest; no government, no institution can have the same level of interest in my agency than myself.

Privacy by design

We need to implement privacy by design in everything that we do, it has been the philosophy of the teams that we invest in. What are the principles of privacy by design? here is a good way to describe it:

An individual however will not chose privacy over health. In my opinion and as Yuval says asking people to chose between Privacy or their Health is the root of the problem. We all should enjoy the fruits of Privacy and Health. We are at a point in the trajectory of technology that an individual has access to the same super computer that used to be only in the hands of governments. We can stop this corona virus or any health challenge if we empower the individual. No one cares about my health more than myself.

Personal Data in the hands of the individual solves systemic problems

The reason we have been relying on the health system to manage our health is because we have never had access to data, knowledge, tools and sensors that can provide us with near real time data about our body. In order to understand biology we had to rely on expensive instruments that were only available to governments and centralized healthcare systems. That is not the case anymore, we have access to sophisticated tools and sensors that cost pennies to a dollar. The case in point is the ECG monitor on my Apple Watch, which costed me about $700 and gives me a enough accuracy to know if I have a problem or not without having to go to my cardiologist. The cost of a trip to my cardiologist is 1000x the cost of my Apple Watch if you factor in all the infrastructure that needs to be in place to treat me.

I am not making a case that we don’t need doctors or hospitals. If anything I want us to take care of our doctors, nurses and the healthcare service providers because they are in harms way. I am just making the case that we need to empower every individual so we don’t need to put our health care infrastructure at risk. The spread of the corona virus is going to break the current healthcare infrastructure. Decentralizing the algorithms, health data, health infrastructure and moving it closer to the individual is in the best interest of the health system and the individual.

We should definitely make use of new technologies too, but these technologies should empower citizens. I am all in favour of monitoring my body temperature and blood pressure, but that data should not be used to create an all-powerful government. Rather, that data should enable me to make more informed personal choices, and also to hold government accountable for its decisions. If I could track my own medical condition 24 hours a day, I would learn not only whether I have become a health hazard to other people, but also which habits contribute to my health. And if I could access and analyse reliable statistics on the spread of coronavirus, I would be able to judge whether the government is telling me the truth and whether it is adopting the right policies to combat the epidemic.

FT article cited above
Gattaca – the dystopian future where all agency is determined based on Personal Data controlled by a centralized authority