“Public fear has driven some of the worst human rights atrocities, and given opportunities for those who would seize power from us and reduce or even erase our hard-won human rights and civil liberties.” - Electronic Frontier Foundation
The Covid-19 pandemic is characterized as unprecedented and therefore unprecedented “temporary” measures must be taken that impede on our privacy in order to contain the spread of the virus. These times are not unprecedented from a privacy perspective—“every crisis is used to justify incursions into our liberty.” The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were the tipping point of surveillance twenty years ago and Big Tech was teed up to pillage. Before 9/11 the government was navigating how to control Big Tech. After 9/11 the government shifted to working with Big Tech in surveilling data to protect America from future terrorism. The exponential growth for “surveillance capitalism” was possible after 2001, since Big Tech was given a hall pass in the name of “national security” to increase the scale and scope of their data extraction methods.
Twenty years later the legal and regulatory systems can’t possibly keep up with the rapidly changing tech landscape, much less during a national crisis. Even without the onslaught of Covid-19, our privacy is under fire as we fight for the right to free will against the invasion of prediction products that promise to modify behavior. Covid-19 has presented a whole new set of concerns as Americans weigh how much privacy we are willing to give up to get back to life as we know it. More concerning is whether giving up temporary privacy in this crisis will spawn another landmark moment for Big Tech, as they plunder our privacy permanently.
Covid-19 surveillance concerns and why we need to be vigilant.
Technology has swooped in as the answer to control the virus. Across the globe, governments have implemented everything from cell phone and credit card tracking, to drone surveillance and facial recognition thermometers. Here in the US, Big Tech and the government mobilized to monitor if people are staying home during the stay-at-home order, based on the location services on their phone.
Big Tech has just rolled out their virus tracking app and those who opt into the app will notify those in close proximity that someone tested positive for Covid-19. The upsides of the app in regard to privacy are that you can opt in or out at any time, supposedly it
doesn’t track your location (just your proximity to others), and your information isn’t accessible to law enforcement. The downsides of the app are that it still exposes where you have been, and it lacks transparency according to EFF.
Covid-19 has also spurred relaxed privacy laws to share health information and slowed new privacy laws in places like California. As the limits of privacy are pushed in the name of public safety, we are all asking ourselves how much privacy we will give up to get back to normal—facial recognition, immunity passes to re-enter society—where will it stop?
Will the fear of Covid-19 erode our privacy to an irreparable point?
In a crisis there is usually a good reason for the invasion of privacy—hunting terrorists or managing a pandemic—but will the damage to privacy be irreversible? Some believe that the effects of Covid-19 on privacy will be worse than the 9/11 attacks and “have raised concerns that enhancing surveillance to track and limit the spread of the virus could cause irreparable damage to privacy.” Surprisingly, in an interview with Slate, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) argues that 2020 is different from 2001 because people are asking questions now that they didn’t even know to ask in 2001 about personal privacy. Our online lives—from ordering groceries to video calls—have liberated us during the pandemic, but will the Covid-technology-takeover be here to stay forever? Will data collected during the pandemic be used by government and commerce even after all this is all over?
What can we do?
If we don’t push back against the invasions of privacy now, we are likely to find no privacy left after this pandemic is all over. The 20th century, marked by industry, wasn’t promising for the planet or working conditions. As a society we had to fight to protect the working man and the environment. Much the same, the 21st century isn’t promising for personal privacy. We have to double our efforts to use safe technology platforms that value privacy. This is a fight for the global citizen and our collective right to privacy in the digital age. The alternative is a future where our past behaviours, preferences, and fears subtly shape our lives but are felt especially hard. Check out other platforms like ARC that are committed to privacy.