Covid-19: a new era of individual control?

The philosopher Michel Foucault, in his lecture of January 15th, 1975 at the Collège de France, announced: “It seems to me that as far as the control of individuals is concerned, basically, the West has had only two great models: one is the model of exclusion of the leper; the other is the model of inclusion of the plague-ridden. And I believe that the substitution of the inclusion of the plague victim, as a model of control, to the exclusion of the leper, is one of the great phenomena that took place in the 18th century.”


This formidable analysis by the French philosopher entitled “Les Anormaux” (The Abnormal) resounds more than ever to our deaf ears at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is spreading, leading States to ask themselves the question of the appropriate use of technologies to monitor its course and warn their citizens of greater contamination. Thus, we are perhaps today, in the 21st century, witnessing a major phenomenon: the popularization of a third model of individual control.



Coronavirus and tracing of individuals


While debates are raging about how to use geolocation data from smartphones to combat the pandemic, France is looking into a digital strategy for identifying people, when the European Commission asked mobile network operators to provide it with aggregate statistical data to check whether the containment instructions are being properly applied. Elsewhere in the world, several countries are currently using “contact tracing” applications, i.e. making it possible to trace all the contacts of an infected person over the last two weeks, by recording all interactions via the Bluetooth function of their mobile phones. In this context, according to the TraceTogether application used by Singapore, only “anonymized identification data, encrypted locally on the users' phones” would be processed.


Other initiatives are more controversial. This is the case of the deployment of facial recognition in Russia. This is also the case in China, where the police have the travel history of all citizens using the Alipay Health Hub application. This is finally the case in Iran which, under the guise of helping to diagnose the virus, has launched a mobile application that makes it possible to collect the location data of millions of citizens in real time.


« Because these tools for tracing, monitoring and surveillance of individuals will survive this crisis. »

Simple provisional measures in exceptional circumstances or the beginning of a generalization of the use of technical, invasive and permanent tracing measures? The health crisis must be addressed, and no one will be able to contest it. However, the means to do so must be wisely considered. Because these tools for tracing, monitoring and surveillance of individuals will survive this crisis. Therefore, to avoid reaching a point of no return, a balance must be found. This cursor must also be the subject of information and education.


From statistical control to mass data control


If Michel Foucault's analysis is still particularly enlightening today, it is because it describes how the use of statistical tools has revolutionized the control of pandemics and individuals. Whether it is now via applications, artificial intelligence or facial recognition systems, the underlying mechanism is still that of large-scale data processing by algorithms. In other words, very advanced statistics. We therefore need to analyse how statistics has impacted the control of individuals to achieve the control that “Big Data” will have. To understand the emerging new age of individual control, we need to go back in time for a moment.


« From the end of the 18th century onwards, statistics were understood as an instrument of state control, making it possible to distinguish between normal and abnormal behavior and habits. »

Why does Foucault refer to the 18th century? It is because at that time statistics appeared as an objective measuring instrument, allowing us to know a social reality that was previously inaccessible and complex. The measurement and statistical description of reality made it possible to apprehend mass phenomena. Governments thus resorted to figures - known as “political arithmetic” - to manage situations of epidemic, famine and war. In 1774, when smallpox swept away King Louis XV, the question arose as to whether or not to inoculate the royal family and then the entire population. From the end of the 18th century onwards, statistics were understood as an instrument of state control, making it possible to distinguish between normal and abnormal behavior and habits.


This is the thesis retained by Michel Foucault, when he distinguishes between the treatment of lepers and plague victims. Foucault describes how the state treatment of bodies has moved from a regime of exclusion of cities and territories to a regime of inclusion. In the case of leprosy, this is a model of exclusion, known as marginalization, a social practice based on the rejection of leprosy patients beyond the city walls. In the case of plague, the population is no longer rejected, but confined. This is quarantine: “And every day inspectors had to pass in front of every house, they had to stop and call out. Each individual was assigned a window at which he was to appear, and when his name was called he was to report to the window, it being understood that if he did not report, he was in bed; and if he was in bed, he was sick; and if he was sick, he was dangerous. And, therefore, something had to be done. That's when the individuals were sorted out, between those who were sick and those who were not”. The State carried out a statistical grid of individuals within the city. Through this data processing, the State carries out a meticulous counting of the healthy and the unhealthy, the normal and the pathological.


« More flexible, more precise, biopower lets people die and makes them live. »

This biopower is no longer a crude and primary method of separating into two distinct groups, the healthy from the sick. Those who must be allowed to live versus those who must be made to die. The logic is reversed. More flexible, more precise, biopower lets people die and makes them live. On the other hand, Foucault strikingly describes the emergence of a power of normalization, what he describes as the advent of disciplines: “The moment of the plague is that of the exhaustive squaring of a population by a political power, whose capillary ramifications constantly reach the grain of the individuals themselves, their time, their habitat, their location, their body. (...) I would say roughly this. It is that, basically, the replacement of the leprosy model by the plague model corresponds to a very important historical process that I will call in one word: the invention of positive technologies of power.”


The emergence of a third control model


The objective of the “biopolitics” presented by Foucault is to produce a healthy population by identifying regularities. Individual bodies become objects of disciplines on which continuous, regulatory and corrective mechanisms will be applied. As Foucault remarked, the aim of the state, in this gigantic collection of data, in this regime of knowledge, is not so much to obtain knowledge as to achieve good government by gaining access to the intimate functioning of individualities. The government must then conform to the knowledge it possesses of the masses, to ensure effective economic redistribution and maximum judicial equality.


« (...) the control of individuals may well be in its third age, extending Foucault's reasoning. Not that of exclusion, nor that of inclusions by confinement or quarantine, but of a certain freedom to come and go, in return for real-time tracking and surveillance. »

In our contemporary society, statistics - now called “Big Data” - is the indispensable tool for rational and predictable human administration and for the preservation of public order. In this context, the control of individuals may well be in its third age, extending Foucault's reasoning. Not that of exclusion, nor that of inclusions by confinement or quarantine, but of a certain freedom to come and go, in return for real-time tracking and surveillance. From the leprosy model to the plague model, we now have the coronavirus model. But in return for what precisely?


In the face of these developments, the question is less of whether or not we should use technologies to help limit the spread of the virus than which technologies should be applied and how.


Should we only process anonymized data? If so, what anonymization technologies should be deployed? Will they be robust to re-identification possibilities? If so, will these mechanisms be offered based on individual consent? Will the data be subsequently deleted? Will advanced encryption technologies allow for the preservation of individual freedoms? Will the purposes of these processings be clearly framed so as to be limited to the fight against the epidemic? How can we ensure that these measures are proportionate and legitimate? There is nothing cosmetic about this reflection and it could well have important consequences for the respect of the rule of law and the way in which our societies of tomorrow will be shaped.