Coronavirus' Side Effects Include Erosion of Privacy?

Extreme societal events are always an opportunity to bring people and nations together1. But they can also put at risk our individual freedoms.

The sentence “desperate times call for desperate measures” can entail both relief and fear depending on who says it and the involved measures. We may not be desperate yet but for many of us this is a wildly abnormal situation whose ending is still very much unknown.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has world governments racing to contain its spread, trying to keep their economies from tanking and appeasing people’s anxieties to the best of their ability. It’s during extraordinary moments like these that attacks to our rights to privacy and individual autonomy are attempted and, sometimes, achieved.

The Patriot Act — a measure that enabled the mass surveillance abuses of the NSA in the following decade — was passed amid elevated fears of terrorism that followed the 9/11 attacks. Simultaneously, as explained in detail in Shoshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”², the imperative to amass high quantities of data for the sake of security legitimized the invasion of privacy pushed by private companies likes of Google, invasions that had until then been frowned upon by the U.S. government.

With the current pandemic, governments are looking at how technology can help contain the virus and it’s already possible to see some side effects on how it could affect our privacy.

In Israel, the government just approved an emergency surveillance regulation allowing the Israeli police to to tap into the cell phones of Israelis sick with Coronavirus and monitor their movements. It doesn’t require a court order to track peoples’ phones and collect data, even though it must be deleted after 30 days.

In the U.S., the Washington Post reported that the government has held conversations with Facebook and Google executives in order to explore ways to track and analyze people’s movements to monitor the spread of the infection and understand the effectiveness of social distancing measures. Facebook stated reports were overstated, but we’ve seen that collaborating with the government has proven many times to be beneficial for Big Tech.

Google (through Verily) rolled a website tasked with “educating and helping triage” potentially sick people. It remains to be seen how the website will evolve or even if it’ll target areas outside of the Bay Area, but we shouldn’t forget Google’s purchase of millions of health records from Ascension nor it’s $2.1b FitBit acquisition, both movies the company’s definite interest in our health data.

Crises always bring societal change. These changes also bring new opportunities for actors — both public and private —to exploit the situation to their own advantage. We must be attentive to measures put forth that on the surface look well intentioned but that can be followed by side effects, such as the unabashed mining of our personal lives and potential erosion of our liberties.

As Niccolò Machiavelli said: "never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis."

Notes & Sources

1 Ironically, we need to keep social distancing in order to minimize this health crisis.

2 See Chapter Four: "The Moat Around the Castle; IV. Shelter: Surveillance Exceptionalism"