Covid-19’s biggest casualty will be the further degradation of our individual privacy

Privacy news
4 mins
An illustration of a crowd of people, all wearing masks, under a surveillance camera.

History, as they say, often repeats itself. And we’ve definitely seen this before.

It took a cataclysmic event to sow the first seeds of the surveillance state in the U.S., where citizens gradually became accustomed to invasive tools following them everywhere they went.

That was, of course, the terrorist attacks in New York on 9/11, which led to the USA Patriot Act. Its lesser-known full name is Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.

Under the Patriot Act, federal agencies were given sweeping powers such as indefinite detentions of immigrants, the authority to search a property without the occupant’s consent or knowledge, and, most chillingly, the mandate to monitor emails, phone calls, and financial records without a court order.

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And it was because of the Patriot Act that the NSA launched its infamous Prism program, monitoring nearly all Americans and leading to the Snowden revelations.

But I digress. The tools used in surveillance were still rudimentary at the time. Smartphones, facial-recognition cameras, and IoT devices weren’t ubiquitous the way they are now.

The new wave of surveillance will be far more intensive and might even be welcomed with open arms.

Extraordinary measures in strange times

For anyone following the discourse around how to stop the spread of the coronavirus (and let’s face it, that’s most of us), a common theme that has emerged is “contact tracing,” or determining the individuals that an infected person might have come in contact with and passed the virus to.

That’s not an easy thing to achieve. The incubation period of the virus is up to 14 days, with some studies showing that individuals might be most contagious right before they exhibit symptoms.

When an individual does test positive, it’s necessary to trace all their steps for the past two weeks and simultaneously quarantine all those they might have visited or inadvertently passed the virus to.

If done manually, this process entails a laborious and error-prone process. Unsurprisingly, governments have turned to technology to solve the problem.

In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu authorized the use of a previously undisclosed stash of cell-phone data to track coronavirus patients and trace others who had been in contact with them.

It’s a similar story in privacy-first Europe, where governments in Italy and Spain have resorted to cell-phone data and mobile apps to pinpoint those refusing to comply with the lockdown.

In fact, such examples are rife across the world: Singapore lets its residents know through an app whether they’ve come in contact with an infected person. In China, algorithms that flash red, yellow, or green indicate whether you’re allowed to leave your premises. Notorious rivals Apple and Google have teamed up to deploy Bluetooth beacons in an effort to promote contact tracing.

There’s been a few concerns about privacy raised among all this, but the fervor around flattening the curve and beating the pandemic is loud and shrill. Everything else is secondary and will not warrant much debate.

To a degree that’s fair. These are extraordinary circumstances and require extraordinary solutions. Every country around the globe is on a war footing and there’s no playbook as yet on how to combat Covid-19.

Will the public passively accept these invasive techniques?

Both the rapid spread of Covid-19 and the unexpected terrorist attacks in New York were black swan events, and it’s still far too early to tell what the long-term fallout of the virus will be.

But surveillance techniques have been adopted by countries across the political spectrum, from authoritarian to democratic. Dismantling this infrastructure when the pandemic dies down won’t prove to be an easy task.

When surveillance infrastructure first hit the U.S., it did so covertly and discreetly and required significant legislation in order to lay the foundations. With the pandemic, it seems like there are no rules with what governments can or cannot sanction.

Citizens, so far, have largely kept quiet about this loss of privacy. They do, after all, want to protect their health and see economies reopen. Everyone’s suffering and everyone wants normalcy soon.

The heavy criticism of the NSA following the Snowden revelations won’t happen during the pandemic, even if governments overplay their hand.

According to a recent survey by ExpressVPN, Americans are well aware of the risks to their privacy that come with contact-tracing and resulting government excesses. They know their data might end up in the wrong hands. Yet, 59% are willing to sacrifice some rights because they believe it’s in the public interest.

And when administrations go to extreme lengths and spend a colossal amount of time and resources to build tracking infrastructure, what’s the incentive for them to simply make that vanish overnight? Some could argue that it’s necessary to keep the infrastructure in place for future crises and to prevent something as catastrophic as Covid-19 happening again.

Add that with the general apathy towards contact-tracing and we have the makings of a dark and sinister future.

Most of us will simply shrug our shoulders and carry on with our lives. Eventually, however, we will pay the price for passiveness.

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.