Note: We are not epidemiologists, public health officials, or medical professionals and do not take a public position or make a representation that the current or future strategies to fight COVID-19 are the correct or incorrect ones to take. This piece is designed to highlight the long-term privacy concerns of the surveillance measures being employed and not to assess their suitability or success in fighting the pandemic. This piece is focused on surveillance related privacy concerns brought about by the pandemic, not a statement on the pandemic itself or the battle against it.
Following the note above, of course we at Privacy Rightfully wish a magic wand could be waved over our Earth and COVID-19 be eradicated overnight with no more fatalities to be had. Unfortunately, no such magic wand exists and instead world leaders are enthusiastically pushing certain tools we do have, tools which would be considered magic if you removed 50 years from today’s date.
Of course, the tools we refer to are digital, our mobile phones, the connectivity of the internet and the interconnectivity of the Internet of Things. Tools that can track virtually everything – our location, those we interact with, who is at our house or front door and even our heartbeat. When you consider that level of personal insight it’s no surprise these tools can be considered an ally to fight a global pandemic and health emergency.
The issue however is, when purchasing digital tools such as mobile phones we didn’t explicitly invite or anticipate the government to access our data. We as the consumer have purchased these tools and their tracking of our movements, bodies and home security is was supposed to be a relationship between us, and our secure account with the software or service provider. Most of that is still reality as contact tracing apps are urged but not mandatory in most countries and utilising Internet of Things devices hasn’t yet been suggested.
On the first point the list of countries making contract tracing apps compulsory is an increasing list. On the second point it’s not hard to imagine your Google Home or Amazon Alexa, for example, being able to listen in to your conversations about feeling sick or hearing you cough and flagging it. As you can see we’re starting to have a few things to think about.
The deal being presented
COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people, bankrupted organisations, crippled industries, caused record unemployment and brought world economies to their knees. There is no understating the heartbreaking impact of this awful virus and everyone the world over wants to see it in the history books and a return to normal as soon as possible.
Digital contact tracing has been touted as the main surveillance-based solution to get the virus under control by identifying the sources of infection and reducing the time those sources are moving around the community infecting others. The deal presented to us is: ‘Tell us where you are going, and we will let you go there’. Given the enormous impact COVID-19 has had as described in the opening of this section it’s not surprising most people are taking that deal and believing they are part of the solution with nothing lost.
The issue with the deal – something is lost
It may well be part of the solution; we hope it is if that’s what it takes. However, what happens when we reach the point of that solution (or otherwise a safe eradication, herd immunity, vaccine etc)? Will the surveillance be rolled back? What will happen to the collected data?
The issue is like a monetary loan – most of us are happy to outlay some funds to help the cause with the money being our data and privacy. But we also expect to be repaid (the data deleted), earn some interest for our outlay (beating the pandemic), and have it concluded in a timely manner. The public is holding up their end of the bargain but has not received any guarantee on the returns, the interest, or the term.
History on the issue
President Obama’s Whitehouse Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” 1
The quote was referring to the 2008 financial crisis but twelve years on it’s easy to see its applicability to the subject at hand. However, its applicability was also relevant seven years before Mr Emanuel said those words. The September 11 terrorist attacks, like the COVID-19 pandemic, saw some serious questions being asked when it comes to governmental imposed surveillance. The Patriot Act was passed less than two months after the September 11 attacks and turned ordinary citizens into potential suspects under the promise of catching terrorists. The Patriot Act opened the door for laws allowing the government to monitor civilian phone calls, emails, track online activity and so forth.
The deal was strikingly similar: ‘Let us listen in to your calls and read your emails as it will help us track down terrorists’. However, as the years went on it would be fair to say the public didn’t feel that much safer and few potential attacks were explicitly prevented thanks to those laws. Today the appetite for trading privacy for national security has soured and more people are fighting back to take control of their privacy. Without this fight back Privacy Rightfully and our industry, would have no relevance.
Which brings us to the next and current crisis in COVID-19 and suddenly governments have another chance to have the public accept mass surveillance as the new normal (or more disturbingly ‘a return to normal’). The public’s appetite to trade privacy for national security has soured but their appetite to trade privacy for public health hasn’t. The public accepted these deals early in each respective crisis as it was the first time many had been exposed to large scale terrorist attacks on home soil – much the same way this is the first time a global pandemic is being experienced so close to home.
The similarities are indeed striking, but let’s also remember that technology has advanced exponentially. The surveillance potential in 2001 is dwarfed by what’s available now in smartphones and facial-recognition cameras for example. The latter is advancing so much that masks, sunglass and hats are no longer effective against them.
We need to think ahead
The risks to be discussed below are ideological to challenge the reader to think about the future of our relationship with government. This is in favour of discussing technical risks of Bluetooth digital contract tracing apps, for example, which won’t allow the reader the same level of critical thought and reflection.
What we need to think about is that government having a real time record of your movements wasn’t ever normal and should never be part of any so called ‘new normal’. Is it unfair to assume this deal we’ve made in 2020 won’t be abused in the future given how the 2001 deal was abused as we saw in the Snowden revelations. It may be difficult to grasp to any reader in a democratic country today but countries such as Turkey and Hungry are eroding civil liberties well into the 21st century. We haven’t moved past the record keeping fanaticism of the Stasi, who claimed to have records on over a third of the population. The record keeping has just changed, discreetly, moving from a very tangible visible library of paperwork to a very intangible, hard to see, hard to touch, digital library.
As Bob Hoffman, who by the way comes from a Marketing & Advertising background believes that the surveillance economy will not end well.
“We know what happens when governments have too much information about people. We have seen what happened behind the Iron Curtain. We saw what happened with Nazism. When governments know everything you are doing, everyone you are talking to, everyone you are seeing, there is nothing but trouble.” 2
Furthermore, if contact tracing apps on mobile phones, for example, were as successful as they’re being touted, the pill may simply be easier to swallow. Indeed, early results from Israel, Taiwan, Singapore amongst others are indicating that these apps do not work or are otherwise far less successful than when they were proposed.
Accepting the same deal as we accepted in 2001 increases the effectiveness and efficacy of a building surveillance state. We the public essentially say to our leaders that we accept surveillance needs to be part of our lives for us to feel safe. If we grant these levels of social engineering to our leaders every time a crisis hits, we may live in a vastly different world by the time some of us reach retirement.
In China, the so called ‘return to normal’ involves yet another layer of surveillance and social engineering to a state well known to be a pioneer in the field. A simple task like leaving home, catching a bus to a market, and buying some fresh fruit & vegetables now has a barrier. Citizens must show a particular colour on their phones (red, orange or green) and if you don’t have green, you’re not going anywhere! The kicker though is that there is reportedly no biometric link, there is no biometric sports watch recording your temperature and other health indicators. It is run most likely by a digital algorithm or human authority (or both) and citizens naturally accept this (for other obvious reasons) but mainly as it was sold as ‘this is the new normal if you don’t want to get sick’. Naturally the CCP claims this is a temporary measure but it’s fair to say nothing is more permanent than temporary measures. 100ml limits of liquids on flights was supposed to a temporary measure too – as announced in 2006.
You may be thinking “yes but we’re not living in China, our government couldn’t ever impose that”. This is a fair rebuttal anytime we draw on an example from the most extreme overreaches of government powers. Our concern isn’t that our democratic governments in say the US or UK will turn authoritarian, our concern is they will borrow parts of the Chinese model whilst remaining inherently democratic. The value and power of data to political parties was highlighted to us by Cambridge Analytica, it would be naïve to assume that the inoffensive centre left and centre right parties in your favourite democratic country aren’t chasing as much data as they can get their hands on.
Governments therefore have an implicit interested to continue to push the acceptance of increased surveillance among its citizens. Without meaningful opposition they will do this well beyond the shelf life or urgency of the crisis each piece of surveillance is supposed to curb.
This article was written to speak to our degree of social pushback when extraordinary circumstances ask us to make concessions we otherwise wouldn’t. For as long as any measure is claimed to aid the fight against COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 it is likely to be met with societal support irrespective of its intrusion on civil liberties and personal privacy. Society took the same view and made the same agreement in the early periods following the September 11 attacks which, in hindsight, most of society regrets or criticises as being a failed solution and a broken promise.
In the years after 2001 we asked ourselves if it was all worth it? Was the surveillance truly in the pursuit of domestic terrorists and national security? It’s too early to ask ourselves the same question as we are in the midst of peak fear of COVID-19, feeling the same way we did in early 2002. However, the indicators are already there that we will look back at heightening surveillance tools such as contact tracing apps with the same degree of contrition and regret as we do when we reflect on The Patriot Act today.
We hope we are completely wrong; we hope the heightened surveillance will be short-term. We hope the contract tracing apps start to show some higher levels of success and at meaningful volume to impact positive change. We hope once COVID-19 is behind us that governments will permanently delete the digital data and non-digital records collected over the course of the pandemic. However, given how much they have gained from data and surveillance in the past it’s unlikely they’ll let it go without a fight. Now may not be the time to have that fight but once COVID-19 is behind us we need to stand firm and tell governments that mass surveillance shouldn’t be their go-to solution to every crisis.
Sources of quotes
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