Privacy and the Coronavirus: The battle against civil liberties

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Ping.

You receive a text. As you lazily lift your phone up to read the message, your heart skips a beat. “Hello ____, according to an epidemiological investigation, on March 24 you were in the vicinity of a coronavirus patient. You must immediately go into isolation until April 8.” You panic as your mind runs through all the social interactions you have had in the past few days.

Other telephones warn people who have come into contact with coronavirus patients to go into isolation at once. Using geo-tracking, hidden tools and cross-references among multitudes of data, your Health Ministry undertakes an extreme form of surveillance and somehow manages to send epidemiological updates directly to at-risk citizens.


Should we sacrifice privacy in the face of a global pandemic? Can we use our technology effectively, and not destroy our liberties?  Photo courtesy of    Pexels

Should we sacrifice privacy in the face of a global pandemic? Can we use our technology effectively, and not destroy our liberties? Photo courtesy of Pexels

This was the reality for many Israeli citizens last week. Despite being a violation of privacy laws, it joins the latest in a series of dramatic extensions of the role of government in countries around the world to combat the coronavirus. In the case of Israel, it became one of the first democracies to use its security services to track coronavirus victims.

This seems like an uneasy compromise. Should we sacrifice privacy in the face of a global pandemic? Can we use our technology effectively, and not destroy our liberties? During an international crisis like this, suspending fundamental rights may seem comforting, because people feel relieved to hand over control to big government, instead of facing immense uncertainty. However, this should never be the first solution to global crises.

The increased surveillance we endure during this pandemic could have lasting effects after the world comes back to normal. In China, the virus has given the government an opportunity to increase surveillance as citizens install self-monitoring apps for their own good. Facial recognition technology is also being used to detect heightened temperatures or raise concerns about particular civilians.

An egregious example of this is an app called HealthCode, which dictates freedom of movement, whether people should be quarantined, or even allowed into public spaces, while also sharing location data with police. What makes this worse is that there is absolutely no transparency about how these apps function, what data it collects and where it sends the data—and there’s no sign of this technology disappearing even when the pandemic ends.


Should we sacrifice privacy in the face of a global pandemic? Can we use our technology effectively, and not destroy our liberties?  Photo by    Lianhao Qu    on    Unsplash

Should we sacrifice privacy in the face of a global pandemic? Can we use our technology effectively, and not destroy our liberties? Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

While you can argue that greater data collection helped prevent the virus from spreading in China, because of its reporting of hotspots, it also had many troubling drawbacks. As with any other human venture, it was imperfect, and privacy breaches led to mass leaks of personal information, doxxing, discrimination against patients and isolation. There are other serious unintended consequences to this kind of surveillance, from draconian law enforcement to further erosion of the thin line that separates tech titans from big government.

While it’s fair to argue that these invasions of privacy are necessary as the world grapples with a pandemic, we should realize that these are extreme measures required to battle extreme situations. They should not be treated as normal, reasonable or inevitable. As America learned after 9/11, what works during an emergency response situation never works during day-to-day life.

It terrifies me that Iran, Russia, Singapore and other countries around the world have begun to adopt similar measures in an effort to curb the virus, and it troubles me to think about the use of these technologies after the crisis ends. After studying similar historical precedents, it becomes clear that these techniques of mass surveillance tend to persist in society after such events, and it reminds me of the importance of being vigilant about what we allow our government to do during times like these. The after-effects could be disastrous.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.


Nidhi J. Nair is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at nidhi_jayakumar@uconn.edu.

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