What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
"Of all tyrannies," wrote C.S. Lewis, "a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies."
In January, a former British Prime Minister called upon world leaders in Davos, drawn from business, economics and politics, to move us closer to the latter condition.
Tony Blair urged them to take a collective step closer to global governance.
He argued that world leaders needed to take steps to prepare for potential future pandemics, by setting up a global digital database of the vaccinated. And by extension, of course, the unvaccinated.
The subtext was that global digital infrastructure would be needed in other areas, too, so we'd better get on with building it.
What Mr Blair did not address were the huge potential downsides to global databases, in terms of privacy invasion, discrimination, technology creep and so much more.
In the next year or two, we will hear increasing calls for global digital infrastructure of one kind or another.
Advocates will speak of hubs of interconnected databases, which can identify individuals and people groups according to their life circumstances - and potentially their belief systems and behaviour patterns.
Supposedly, this will allow governments and transnational treaty organisations to better prepare for worldwide challenges.
These might include regional wars which have the potential to go nuclear; low-probability, high-impact events such as natural disasters; threats of genocide; and coordinated digital crime waves involving people trafficking and threats to the global economy.
Mr Blair, like, I suppose most WEF attendees, is a keen internationalist and globalist.
He believes - mistakenly, I think - that by hugely increasing levels of central oversight and, in the process, reducing personal privacy, governments can coax people into obeying their mandates.
The purpose of this article is not to question the efficacy of vaccines per se. It is concerned with the bigger issue of using a pandemic, or any other event, to push the notion of global digital infrastructure.
There are glaring problems with the type of database Mr Blair has suggested. Here are a few.
Threats to Privacy: Even the most basic global database would if it were to have any benefit, include sensitive personal information. For this reason, it would be a natural target for increasingly adept hackers and fraudsters.
In the US alone, identity theft affects more than 60 million people each year, at an estimated total cost of around $16.9 billion. The country sees a new ID theft every two seconds.
New developments in encryption might limit this type of activity for a while but, ultimately, no encryption is foolproof.
Potential Rights Abuses: A global database infrastructure of any kind could almost inevitably, in time, lead to infringements of human rights, including, perhaps, freedoms of worship and expression.
Even today, unscrupulous governments can easily use national databases to gain access to personal data without public authorisation.
The Chinese government is a world leader in spying on its citizens. Authorities in parts of China have adopted “social credit” systems which rank citizens according to their ability to act in government-approved ways.
Citizens who break laws even at the level of breaking a speed limit are penalised and denied opportunities that may be open to others. Buying too many video games is also a demerit-worthy offence.
Imagine the possibilities open to - and the temptations faced by - domestic governments, Chinese or otherwise, when global databases are in play.
Technology Creep: Do a little light reading on the social impacts of new technology and you'll come across many examples of technology creep.
From time to time, governments seek the support of the public for new technologies to help protect people and property. These technologies are duly approved by voters, but only for particular, limited uses. Later, government agencies have applied them in ways the public has not approved - and is often against.
Technology creep is a particular challenge when it comes to surveillance. CCTV cameras were originally installed in London to help reduce crimes such as car theft.
A decade or so later, police used these same cameras to identify parents who, in mornings and afternoons, momentarily double-parked their cars as they delivered or collected their children outside school. In some cases, local councils provided no car parking near the school.
A predictably angry public outcry ensued. The police service was hauled over the coals.
A global vaccine log would require the services of an international agency with significant powers of surveillance.
Imagine the havoc that might arise if the said agency was to incrementally increase the types of data collected, in ways the public had not sanctioned.
Digital technology has a tremendous capacity to benefit human societies. Yet its pace of development far outstrips the rate at which we can build codes of ethics to control it.
This is why government committees in countries like the USA and the UK find it hard to regulate BigTech companies. These multinationals deal with technologies lawmakers can’t yet understand.
In the 1980s, work began to develop codes of ethics to guide the progress of genetic engineering. Similar codes for digital technology - covering AI, machine learning, cognitive computing and more - are lagging far behind.
All too often, BigTech measures itself against an ultra-pragmatic philosophy, which says, “If a thing can be done, it should be done - and now.”
Governance and Appeals: The development of global infrastructure necessitates building entirely new transnational bureaucracies to administer it.
These administrative bodies need to establish links with security agencies and international policing bodies. In the case of a vaccine database, new international courts would be required, to hear appeals against the misuse of data or institutional overreach.
Administrative agencies then need to answer to increasingly globalised lawmaking bodies.
In most democracies, regional and national governments still operate relatively close to the people they represent. Lawmakers often live among their constituents. At the very least, they receive constant feedback and instruction from them.
With a global infrastructure of the type Tony Blair supports, national governments would be called upon to cede significant power to an international lawmaking body, which would not be as directly accountable to the people.
The power of self-appointed elites would grow. The power of the people - measured by the weight of a single vote - would shrink.
(This may or may not be the intention of WEF aficionados, but it would be the outcome.)
Erosion of Trust: Studies have shown that for much of the past decade, levels of public confidence in governments have been on the slide, at least in the developed world.
So have levels of trust in other foundational institutions - such as media, banking, policing, big business and some religious groups.
Quite how advocating a global database infrastructure would reduce public unease regarding government overreach is beyond me.
Social Discord: For governments, reliance on databases is a good servant but a poor master.
A reliance on spreadsheets - no matter how sophisticated they are - would produce in politicians a false sense of perspective when it comes to issues of social inequality.
Databases record only raw statistics. Statistics are, as someone aptly put it, human lives with the tears wiped away. No spreadsheet can fully reflect the depth of pain or loss experienced by an individual, family or community faced with traumatic events.
Governments cannot rely on databases to tell the whole story when it comes to social injustices or the denial of opportunities to one group by another.
Discrimination: A global vaccine database would likely create new examples of discrimination against non-vaccinated (or under-vaccinated) individuals, families, or interest groups.
Discrimination might take place in the workspace, the housing rental market, or the banking industry. Many other entities might also gain access to the database.
Inaccurate Data: Anyone who uses online banking knows how easy it is for a business or institution to build up a false narrative from inaccurate data.
Poor analysis of client data can lead to faulty conclusions about that person's financial health. The same kind of thing could occur concerning physical health, if decisions are made only at arm's length, using incomplete or inaccurate medical information.
Inequalities of Opportunity: Vaccines are not equally available to everyone. That is true on a national level, but even more so globally.
Access to reliable vaccines is limited in many countries. A global database could stoke divisions between the vaccine haves and have-nots.
In an extreme case, we might see nations faced with a pandemic going to war over vaccine access.
Machine Learning: There are other potential pitfalls with any global digital infrastructure. Let me share just one more - and it’s a big one.
Among the many calls we’ve heard for a moratorium on the development of artificial intelligence, few voices have demanded deliberate limits on the amount of data we feed it.
Machines “learn” by collating and analysing swathes of data - much of it provided by human users in the course of their daily lives.
The machines spot patterns and anomalies in the data. From these, they infer rules for behaviour. Gradually, they can improve their programming. They learn.
Machines networked worldwide via the Cloud have enormous potential for positive self-improvement. Conversely, if fed faulty data, they can change in ways that are harmful to human beings or the environment.
Building global databases - and governments would not stop with a vaccine database - will provide vast oceans of new data for machine learning.
Most of that learning would happen outside of direct human involvement or oversight.
Mr Blair and his fellow globalists see the question of global digital infrastructure through a narrow prism - their interest in global government. A government in which, by the way, they hope to play a very significant role.
For them, that ultimate end justifies the means - even if one of the means is a global database of the vaccinated, with little regard given to its downsides.
We must demand that these globalists think again. When it comes to vaccine databases and the like, technology must be seen to serve the interests of individuals first, not those of global bureaucracies - or know-all political elites.