1 year on: As Covid-19 raged, our privacy slid

Digital freedom
4 mins
Unlocked padlock with a virus on it.

It’s hard to overstate just how much the pandemic has shaped the way we lived, worked, studied, and traveled.

As we pass the one-year mark since the WHO declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, and with so many things having changed in that time, it’s important to take stock of just how this pandemic has affected us—and our privacy.

1. Every social interaction went online

With “half of humanity” going into lockdown back in April 2020, many of us started working from home (and quickly found which corner of the house gave the fastest Wi-Fi). To stay connected, we turned to video calls and messaging apps, and maybe spent too much time on social media.

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The bad: The near-instantaneous mass adoption of popular video-conferencing apps like Zoom attracted the attention of cyberattackers and “zoom-bombers” alike. Its use by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson drew heavy criticism because of the software’s vulnerabilities, prompting Zoom to implement greater password protections and end-to-end encryption to keep private meetings private.

The good: With many of these services now rolling out more secure forms of communicating, you can secure your video conferencing apps and use end-to-end-encrypted messaging platforms with greater ease. Just don’t take a picture of a conference room with the URL visible.

2. Schools and companies switched to a remote presence

“Remote learning” and “remote work” became commonplace—1.2 billion children started remote learning last year, and roughly 35% to 40% of employees in developed economies reported working from home most or all of the time during the pandemic. Some tech companies like Microsoft and Twitter took it a radical step further, allowing its employees to continue to work remotely post-pandemic.

The bad: To keep an eye on things, some companies and schools have started installing spyware on students and employees’ devices to surveil their activity on a far more granular level. Such software has also been implemented on students’ laptops, with schools using proctoring apps to “watch” students when they do their schoolwork or take tests.

The uncertain: It’s possible that when social-distancing measures are lifted such technologies won’t be used as frequently with people returning to school and offices, but the surveillance of those still in remote positions will likely remain.

3. Online shopping is replacing brick-and-mortar businesses

We spent a lot more on face masks, toilet paper, groceries, delivered meals, and, well, everything else—and we did that all online too. People who couldn’t shop outside resorted to doing all their shopping online, and it looks like it’ll remain that way. A McKinsey & Company report found 37% of survey respondents planned to spend more online during the 2020 Christmas holidays, and only 10% saying they would spend more time in physical shops.

The good: Truth be told, the internet has been a lifeline for individuals who needed or wanted to isolate, or were barred from their usual shops and restaurants because of temporary closures. E-commerce meant they were still able to buy provisions and just about anything else.

The bad: Going cashless also meant that our payments became easier to track, and therefore easier to target with ads. That’s hard to avoid with a credit card, and while using a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin might help, it’s not as widely accessible.

4. Contact-tracing apps drew moderate suspicion

When a contact-tracing apps was being developed by Google and Apple, they naturally garnered some suspicion over the privacy implications of an app suspected to track and their location (even though it didn’t). Most Americans we found in one survey did not trust contact tracing apps to respect their personal privacy, although some were willing to use it for the sake of public health.

The dubious: Other versions of the contact-tracing app raised eyebrows for their applications beyond controlling the virus. Singapore’s TraceTogether app has been used by law enforcement for a criminal case, and Bahrain’s BeAware app has collected location and movement data from its citizens. It’s unclear how the information on some of these apps are handled, and even when their use diminishes with growing vaccination rates, that does not necessarily mean that information gets discarded either.

5. Masks went head to head with facial recognition, and lost

Even before the pandemic, the debate over facial recognition was heated. With the quick adoption of masks across the world, a new challenge emerged concerning the mask’s ability to evade face scanners (or not).

The sad: The technology has quickly met the challenge, with Japanese company NEC, which develops facial-recognition systems, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, both coming up with ways to recognize a person with startling accuracy. You’ll need more than a face mask to avoid CCTV surveillance.

6. Digital vaccine passports will become a part of travel

Domestic and international travel became scarce in 2020, but with more people getting vaccinated, country borders are likely to start opening up to international travelers—if they’re vaccinated.

The dystopian: To determine this, some countries are developing digital vaccine passports or certificates that allow vaccinated citizens to travel abroad without having to self-isolate or quarantine. Some countries are also thinking of expanding this use to stadiums and concerts.

With such apps containing inherently personal information about a person, like a passport would, it should prioritize the user’s privacy and security. The rush to return to “normal” makes it easy to overlook these concerns—we need to make sure they aren’t.

A brave new world of privacy pitfalls

The pandemic has accelerated our already-heavy presence online. Meanwhile, all of our activity, both online and offline, has become increasingly monitored, in ways that might be difficult to reverse.

As we enter this brave new world, it’s important to ask what your information is used for, how can you ensure that it is not being mishandled, and how can you hold those who have mishandled your information accountable.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.