I'm a data protection and privacy geek. And even I think this time is different.

Opinion klaxon: I’m in the minority who actually like GDPR – while of course acknowledging its faults. But in these strange times, I agree with one of the wisest tech essayists I know. We’ve already given the keys to the data kingdom away to surveillance capitalism. Time to put those keys to use to save lives.

tl/dr: read this. “We Need A Massive Surveillance Program.” Now.

Slightly longer version: I’ve been interested in data protection and privacy for years. I have a (nascent, admittedly) practice in it. (Advertising break: So if you need someone who combines data protection/privacy with investigative, white collar or regulatory problems, I’m your guy!)

And personally, I’m a cheerleader. For goodness’ sake, I’m one of the few people I know who actually applauds GDPR (while of course acknowledging its problems). And that’s even after I had to write corporate procedures to deal with it. And then try to get a sceptical North American audience to buy into them.


Equally, I’m on board with the critique of “surveillance capitalism” by such stars as Shoshana Zuboff and Jaron Lanier. We’ve given away lots, for a lot less return than we think.

So normally the idea of empowering the live tracking of everyone would set my Big Brother muscles twitching horribly. And let’s be clear. It does.

But if there’s anything that South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan have shown us, it’s that the only way through this thing without either killing a horrific number of people or destroying lives through penury (and to be clear, I recognise that we may not be able to evade either of these outcomes) involves testing, tracing, and telling. Testing widely. Tracing where those with the misfortune to be carriers have gone. Then telling them to get them quarantined, and telling others so they can steer clear. And the only way to do that is by using our own self-surveillance devices. Our phones.

It’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? Let ourselves be Tracked. Singled out. Isolated. Potentially ostracised. (This last is really scary, given our proven tendency as a species towards bigoted blame directed to out-groups of all kinds.)

But smarter people than me can’t see a sensible alternative. Even Maciej Cegłowski, who’s got a solid pro-privacy track record and (incidentally) runs Pinboard, the best bookmarking site ever. (Social bookmarking for introverts, as he calls it. Perfect.)

So no more blather. Read what Maciej has to say. Think about the safeguards he (and others) talk about. And also think about how – if we did this, with those safeguards – we’d be setting an example of how the broader surveillance capitalism issues might – just might – be reined in.

Please: read. Then think. That’s all I ask.