Pandemic vs. Privacy

The question I intend to answer is simple. What are the long and short term ramifications of our digital privacy in the wake of this global pandemic?

With news on this pandemic being blasted at us 24/7, it is getting harder to keep up with what is happening behind the scenes. My initial thoughts are that governments and corporations seem to be using this pandemic as an excuse to invade our privacy, however I’d like to believe that I am wrong and try to understand both sides of this complicated story.

 

Smartphones used for tracking

Photo by FOX from Pexels

Governments around the world have begun work to develop apps to help track the spread of the virus. Upon initial thought, it actually seems like a reasonable idea that has the potential to seriously help those in immediate danger.

South Korea is a great example of using data to help slow the spread of the virus. The Korean public health authorities and local governments collaborated closely to precisely document the movement of infected people down to the minute. All local governments share information via texts, websites and media. Companies then developed apps to help visualize this information, as a result they can now learn where infected people went, at what time and how they got there. If someone learns that they may have been exposed, they can quickly self-isolate or see a doctor.

Ok, so they basically threw all the digital privacy rules out of the window, but was it worth it? Well, they went on to test over 46,000 cases, while the United States had tested just 426 cases. Between 20th January and 17th February, there were only 30 confirmed cases. Seems data along with additional measure had been a success.

Although, that was not the end of the story. After a decline in the number of new cases, the 31st infected case had attended a church service and as of 1st March there were 3,526 confirmed cases and 93,456 suspected cases. 59.9% of the confirmed cases were originated from the church services. The problem was simple, they had not done enough to enforce social distancing and ban those travelling directly from China. Their efforts to mitigate infection spread would have been highly effective if they had the proper social distancing measures in place, banned or quarantined and tested those travelling from China along with their app.

Social distancing measures and a ban on travel have already been put in place in most countries within Europe. It would seem releasing an app to track the virus would be highly effective at this stage of the pandemic and/or when we eventually begin to ease restrictions.

A recent report stated that the U.K. government is asking mobile network operators to hand over customer roaming data. Negotiations are still ongoing, but the possibility of the U.K. government having access to roaming data is worrying. It’s already in the process of obtaining phone location data, ostensibly to monitor the effectiveness of the UK-wide lockdown. Their reasoning is they want to figure out how many customers are abroad, I mean really? That’s their excuse?

According to Sky News as of 19th March, they were already receiving anonymous smartphone location data from O2. This data is being used to evaluate whether people are following social distancing and lockdown guidelines.

Google and Apple recently announced a joint contact-tracing program, “to harness the power of technology to help countries slow the spread of COVID-19.” They stated it would use Bluetooth proximity sensing and anonymised identifiers (using hashes instead of any personally identifiable information).

 

Apps taking advantage of high usage

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

I’m sure you’ve already heard about Zoom and how they’ve been handling user data (poorly if you haven’t guessed). From my own research I found some surprising results. It would seem they do not use any third party trackers within their app on Android (will definitely test further) but they do on iOS. Which leads me to believe that they are fully aware how they are handling data in-house.

They are using this pandemic as an excuse to gather all possible data they can and passing this information on to other corporations, namely; Facebook. In addition, articles have come out accusing the app of being malware, having connections to China and having advertised to implement end-to-end encryption however this is completely false, which they themselves have confirmed.

Another popular app at the moment is Houseparty. Although there isn’t much information out with regard to how privacy is handled, I went ahead tried to hunt down what third party trackers they are using. Their app connects to 12 different domains, 6 of which are associated with tracking. Quick side note: from most of the apps I have tested (around 100 in total from the top categories on Android) I’d say at least 75%-80% of them connect to a Facebook domain: graph.facebook.com and various Google domains.

As we enter this new unknown reality, being stuck at home using our devices from laptops to smartphones to smart TVs. I am certain corporations will absolutely jump at this opportunity, simply due to the sheer volume of data they’ll be able to collect.

 

5G

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

As you all know 5G has been in the news a lot recently due to numerous reasons regarding Covid-19. I’ve read various conflicting articles regarding the connection between the two and I’m still not sure exactly what the health implications are (if any). With real information being so intertwined with fake information (dare I say, this may be on purpose?), it can be hard to find the truth. Until I see real evidence, maybe a video of an experiment by independent verified experts, I won’t be able to come to any conclusions at this stage.

However, I do believe that it is no coincidence that 5G is being rolled out so rapidly across the world as we speak. I’ve noticed many new antennas and 5G poles around my area alone. So why? Why is it acceptable to allow construction workers to keep putting these antennas up, whilst most other industries have been completely suspended? I believe the privacy implications may be huge. Due to the simple reason that 5G towers need to be positioned much closer together than the former 4G towers and with the way 5G is designed, it will be able to track people down with extraordinary precision.

The other factor we can’t forget is that billions of more devices will be connected to this so called “Smart Grid” as we grow our smart device collections. This will allow for even more data collection and those who have access to these datasets will learn about people’s habits down to a tee. We already know the implications that huge datasets on people can have (just look at the Trump election and the Brexit referendum). So I ask, what will this mean for the future of privacy? How will this information be used? Will it simply be that the highest bidder has access to this data? What safeguards can we implement to track where our data goes and who gets access to it?

We have to remember that as soon as our data is collected, legally, it is not our data. That data belongs to whomever has collected it, and they can (to an extent) do as they please with it.

 

Conclusion

The surveillance powers this new technology will give governments and corporations will be absolutely out of this world. They’ll be able to track anyone they want at the touch of a few buttons to even more precision they can now. The problem is that in the short term they will be able to use this global pandemic as a reason to use this power, which seems in theory to be a reasonable idea. However, once the dust has settled, what then? Will they just disable the feature? Where will all this data that has been collected go? Do you trust them not to abuse this power after the fact?

We know that there are going to me more waves of this virus during the pandemic, thus there will be more data collection, more data sharing, more tracking and more surveillance. In an open letter published on 20th April, dozens of academics from around the world warn “we are concerned that some ‘solutions’ to the crisis may, via mission creep, result in systems which would allow unprecedented surveillance of society at large.”

We are at a truly pivotal moment, there are going to many unforeseen consequences due to this pandemic in the long run, and you can bet that the integrity of our rights to privacy will be one of them. The decisions we make today and the systems that end up being built, will have a grave impact on our future and future generations. What is the solution? Honestly, I’m not sure, but being aware is definitely a step in the right direction.

We hope you found this article useful. Check out our blog for more guides on protecting your privacy.

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