Co-Founder at NordSec, one of the leaders in providing digital security and privacy solutions for individuals and businesses.
Right now, we’d do everything, give up just about anything, to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. Wouldn’t you gladly relinquish some privacy to bring the world back to normal?
As someone who’s spent years trying to make the internet more private and secure, I can honestly say: It’s not a bad bargain. Compared to what we’ve been asked to sacrifice up until now, sharing private data to stop the spread of the coronavirus sounds outright delightful.
The problem is — it’s hard to think straight when you’re living through a global emergency. What sounds like a great idea today can turn out to have been a crucial mistake in hindsight.
So let’s distrust our current judgment. Let’s assume there aren’t many easy fixes. Let’s make sure that the surveillance tools and emergency rules rolled out during the pandemic do not overstay their welcome.
Surveillance Tools And Emergency Rules
To track and control the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments around the world have ramped up mass surveillance of their citizens. So far, we’ve seen:
• Electronic surveillance devices or bracelets
• Surveillance cameras and other devices in or near homes of COVID-19 patients
• Mass smartphone location data tracking
• Databases of known COVID-19 patients with their personal information
Every country has responded with different measures and degrees of surveillance. China went straight for the panopticon model through CCTV, facial recognition, drones and a smartphone app, which rates the user’s risk of catching the coronavirus. Green? You’re good to go. Red? Too bad, you get 14 days of quarantine.
Most democracies are in a whole different league. For example, Italy uses aggregated data to track the movement of smartphone users via heatmaps. If the data is handled properly, it shouldn’t pose any risk to individual privacy.
The Pandemic Will End, But Will The Surveillance?
We need safeguards against potential abuse of the private data that’s being collected right now. We need guarantees that once the world is back to normal, our privacy is restored. The simplest of these safeguards is deletion. Once the private data is no longer needed to fight the pandemic, I believe it has to be deleted.
Deletion is the best cure against abuse, breaches and leaks. Deleted data can’t find a second life in the hands of third parties.
Private Data Is A Precious Resource — Let’s Use It Wisely
Imagine a spooky scenario. Let’s say contact tracing apps become mandatory — everyone must share their location data with the government. You’re going to a supermarket when suddenly you’re denied access. “You’ve been marked as a potential coronavirus carrier,” the security guard says after you present them your contact tracing app.
How so? You spent the last week cooped up in your apartment, and your only contact was YouTube. Well, it turns out that your neighbor had a stroll through the park yesterday and may have been in contact with someone with COVID-19. The app deemed him a potential risk.
Separated by a wall, you and your neighbor were sitting on your respective couches less than two meters apart. Since GPS and Bluetooth weren’t aware of that, the app marked you too because of “contact.”
Another scenario. You come back home from the supermarket, and the app says — all good, no contact with coronavirus carriers. Does that mean you’re in the clear? What if you touched a contaminated surface?
Every tech has its limitations. To a degree, contact tracing apps can be useful — especially when used in combination with other tools and measures. That’s why the authorities should use private data with the utmost care and purpose. If people feel that their data is wasted, they won’t cooperate.
Informing the public on how the tools work and being transparent about their efficacy is key, especially when you’re asking to sacrifice some privacy for the greater good.
Mass Surveillance Is Often A One-Way Street
Once privacy-invading Cthulhu tentacles are out, you cannot banish them for good. That’s why we need to approach this with open eyes, distrustful of our eagerness to end the pandemic ASAP no matter what. Effective, temporary and transparent is the way to go.
So, what would you give up to stop the pandemic?