Finance

We know what you did during lockdown. An FT Film written by James Graham

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I just want to reassure you this isn’t about blame. It’s about using what happened to all of us, this thing we all just lived through – those of us who did live through it. It’s about using it as a teaching moment.

I’ve always hated that phrase.

Me too.

Basically, you’re not on trial. Your company is one of many nationwide who signed up to this project to map basic human behaviour during the pandemic, both for academia, research, also to help us plan for future crises using all the…

Sorry. Us being?

Oh, just your average software enterprise company, one of the many private firms contracted during the crisis to help the government in gathering data to inform policy.

To find the worst lockdown offenders, you mean? You’re trying to pinpoint who is most responsible.

That’s one way of looking at it, yeah.

What’s the other way of looking at it?

Who was most irresponsible. How was it for you?

How was my existential dystopia?

Yeah.

It was all right. How was yours? Yeah. Well, my fiancé decided to ride that last one out with his sick mum. So not amazing, amazing, but fine.

The third British lockdown came to force on 6th of January 2021. You began working from home. You’re a barrister.

Junior, four years call, family law.

Cool. Well, like a lot of firms yours installed software to monitor when people were away from their desks. You were pretty consistent at first, but then your patterns started to change.

Did they?

Yeah. Yeah. That first week, your smartwatch recorded you going on a nice run at 7:00 every morning.

You have that?

4K, which took you an average of 21 minutes. Not bad. But then, from January the 18th onwards you stopped that routine, and you started to leave the house at night instead, which is still OK. It’s just…

Is it OK? Because it feels like I might be being made to feel like it’s not OK.

Like I said, this is not about judgement. It’s about patterns. You live with your fiancé, Jason, and you rent a spare room to Alison.

You’ve got my housemate’s name from my smartwatch?

Your cohabitants’ names are in the local authority’s database. Our firm has partnered up with many different bodies as part of our work to collate both public and private consumer data.

Yeah. It’s just that this is starting to feel like an interrogation. Only, you’re not the police.

It’s not an interrogation. Although, we have partnered with the police. And actually… this isn’t me being… but the police now come to software companies like us for intel, not the other way around. To the evening of January the 19th, then, you left the house in non-running gear without your smartwatch or your smartphone, almost like… I don’t know… like you didn’t want to be tracked.

Yet you were tracking me.

No one was tracking you, then. This is retrospective, historic data.

How’d you know I wasn’t wearing my smartwatch?

A door cam.

I don’t have a door cam.

You don’t have a door cam, but your neighbour has one. A Ring door cam, it caught you.

Ring just gave you access to any…

The police partnered with Ring. We partnered with the police. Look, the point is, Rachel, can I ask you where you went and why? Just for this study, that’s all. We didn’t pick you up via any facial recognition on CCTV, probably because you were wearing a mask. Very good. Although, I’m not going to lie, that has been a bit of a nightmare in my field, let me tell you.

I have no idea where… who the hell remembers this stuff?

You repeated these little jaunts for about a week, sometimes with your smartwatch on now. Maybe you forgot to take it off, easily done. You went to roughly this location. What was there? Who was there?

Do you know what I think? I think you missed your fiancé.

Do you?

I think this was an extraordinary, traumatic time, and it was hard. The real world was shuttered up, leaving only the digital world and its offer of new temptations. I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist. I’m an analyst. But, judging by the data and, frankly, my own personal observations, I think the boundaries were crossed by many of us, by most of us, understandably, even the prudish Brits with messages that become images that become videos that become live video, our hidden fantasies and exposed faces, even though we vaguely know deep down that these images we send, they’re not going straight to the other person’s device, even though that’s what it feels like, intimate one-to-one connection.

No. They’re instead being handed over to a tech company to store on a server that’s probably in a different country with different laws where it will sit possibly forever. We know that. But, we’re also only human. I think it’s also because the home changed too. Didn’t it? Literally, the nature of what the home had been for centuries, gone within weeks, from a private place, a sanctuary, to a public space of work. And we were forced to welcome anyone and everyone into it through a screen.

But I didn’t send anything to Jason or…

Or?

Are you really sitting here suggesting I betrayed my fiancé?

We know you started to develop huge feelings of anxiety and guilt about something. OK?

You can read all the location settings and datasets you like. You can’t get inside my head, my heart.

Actually, when you returned home from that first evening away from the house, your smart home thermostat registered you showering for a full 20 minutes. Trying to wash something away?

Excuse me.

That night and many nights following, you had a deeply restless sleep. You asked Alexa to list Covid symptoms on the morning of the 21st at 9:34. And Alexa returned results to you from the NHS website.

That could have been my housemate.

It was your voice. And by the way, your Alexa, your Echo, your Siri, your Google Dot, they are always listening. Why, I wonder, did you have to check symptoms if you hadn’t been close to anyone outside your house? And why were you googling questions around forgiveness, Rachel, at 3:00 am in the morning? How to forgive? Can you forgive someone who hurt you?

Jesus Christ! This is some Stasi level…

And then, of course, there’s the contact tracing app, which all dutiful citizens downloaded. Well, that tells us that you were in the presence of someone who also had the app for sustained periods, a man who wasn’t your fiancé, a man who when you were in his company that first night that you were in his physical proximity, your heartbeat went up, and up, and up. So you see, it is possible to see into your heart, maybe even to see what you refuse to acknowledge yourself.

I no longer consent. This is beyond the remit. You have no right!

Right? We are trying to understand what motivated people to break the restriction, and if it’s love..

I didn’t intentionally break anything.

…if it’s love…

If I could explain…

…or lust or fear…

Actually, no, I shouldn’t have to explain.

…or anything we have to plan to mitigate these human flaws coded into us, feelings that make us act against our own best interest and the interest…

I don’t really think an anonymous…

…of those around us.

…data storage company…

Was it us? Is there something in our national character that..

.funded by God knows poking around in people’s have any right to moralise over…

…meant that we topped the list of highest infection rates in the world? Why us? Why in the third wave was there a spike of infections in your area? Who was that? Who was the patient zero of this story? Whose behaviour started this spread? Hmm? Have you ever seen those maps in school books of…

You’re blaming…

..of how the Great Fire of London broke out…

…normal people.

…and spread from shop to shop?

Everyone tried…

Future schoolchildren…

…ordinary, under extraordinary…

..studying the great pandemic of 2020 are going to be able to draw their own map…

OK. You’re blaming normal people…

…of person-to-person contact.

…not the government response.

We have it all. It’s all stored…

…not the conspiracy theories…

..every human interaction…

…not the spread of misinformation…

…every footstep, every message…

…by your algorithm.

…every secret thought. They’re going to draw a map.

You’re blaming people.

And who, I wonder, will be at the centre of it?

You’re blaming people..

Who’s the Typhoid Mary of this story…

…not the spread of misinformation by your algorithm.

…responsible for all those extra deaths?

You’re blaming people!

…responsible for the pain of losing someone, of not being able to visit your father in hospital but to say goodbye to him over a phone instead, as you hear his last breaths ebbing away over a fucking speakerphone?

Apple. Reminder to stand and breathe.

So I know I specialise in family law, not whatever this is. I think…

Oh, please. What are you…

I think citizens have the right to express some unease at the way during a pandemic technology companies rode in to help governments all over the world, often free of charge, to collate and gain access to citizen data…

To beat a virus.

…with little scrutiny or oversight. Where was the vote, the public consultation in letting Amazon pair with the NHS, a private company, our health data? But that’s the point… isn’t it? …about algorithms. No one really knows how they work, even though in an increasingly automated world AI is making decisions for us all the time – what our insurance premiums should be, or A level results, or predictive policing, or even prison sentencing and release.

All of it auditable and accountable.

Is it accountable? What if, say, I had a friend that had a daughter that lived in a residential street that one day, a Maps application discovered was quiet and redirected cars down it to avoid a build up of traffic elsewhere? And my friend’s daughter, she runs out into the road, because it was quiet yesterday. So she thinks it’s going to be quiet today. And she’s knocked down, and she’s killed. And my friend wants justice but it is denied to her, because you cannot take an algorithm to court.

OK, what we do know about these so-called digital gods playing with our lives is that unlike what you said earlier, they do contain all the human flaws of the people who coded and created them. Was it Katy O’Neil, Cathy O’Neil, who said, algorithms are simply opinions embedded in code? Facial technology didn’t pick up my face because of my mask or because it’s up to 40 per cent less effective at recognising black women than white men? And you’re asking me to submit myself to the infallibility of a system that doesn’t allow anyone to pop open the hood and take a look inside. I do not submit myself to it, to any of it. Not everything can be known from data. People are individual. We are complex.

You blame the government in outsourcing its decisions to data companies like ours. You outsource every day of your life. You like this or try that, where to eat, what to watch. You found your fiancé on a dating app. You outsourced your love. Oh, pick me, someone! Pick me! You handed over your own human agency. So nice speech, but most people very willingly during that pandemic sacrificed a few very outdated notions of privacy, so that the algorithms could do what people couldn’t, track the virus and save lives.

And I know that you like to think that everyone’s an individual. But you’re not. I’m not. I fall into a predictable pattern of behaviours based on 100 different data points based on my race, my age, my class, the things I watch. You think you’re one in a million? Congratulations! On a planet of 8 billion, that means there are more than 8,000 people exactly like you. Did you break the restrictions because of a relationship with this man?

All you can measure is what people do! You can’t know why!

There is no why good enough. Did you? Did you have an affair with Joe, a man whose Facebook profile you clicked on 28 times in 24 hours, a man who went home to contract Covid himself…

It’s true. I don’t trust this…

…and then spread it to at least 12 others…

…but not because your algorithms aren’t good enough…

…who spread it to at least 58 others?

…but because they’re too good. I mean, imagine. Imagine. Can you imagine a social media platform so good at recommending to you people that you may know that it recommends you, out of nowhere when you’re nowhere near ready, the man who sexually and emotionally abused you over many months and years, who during your relationship gaslit, and tormented, and manipulated, and yet, you somehow managed to extricate yourself from to survive only to be faced with the face of that person you’ve been trying to forget? People you may know? I’ll fucking say. And where was my control? Where was my agency?

That’s who you went to see? Why? To confront him?

You think you’ll know how you’ll react.

I still, under the guidelines…

Based on previous behaviours, you did this. So you’ll likely do that.

I still don’t think…

You think you’ll want some sort of justice, revenge. But when you enter their world, when you read what they’re writing, see them struggling, like we all were, posting thoughts about ending it all and seeing no one come to their aid, well, sometimes you can surprise even yourself. Perhaps the way to move on from something done by someone, perhaps helping to save that person might just be the most surprising way of surviving that thing yourself.

How to forgive?

People are unpredictable.

Possibly. But viruses aren’t.

I’ll note for the record that you made a personal decision to break the restrictions to possibly save a life. But I’m sorry. That may have killed 20 more by transmitting the virus. And that’s why the data knows best. And that’s why we must hand ourselves over to it. As emotional beings we are simply unable to measure that equivalence ourselves. So your audit trail will enter the system, and an automated verdict delivered to you in due course.

Will I be able to appeal?

Yeah, of course. Although, the outcome will be the same. Algorithms, they don’t tend to change their minds. Would you like an Uber home?

It’s recommending I walk.

Well, if that’s what it recommends.

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