The greatest technological progress often arrives in response to moments of crisis. From the rapid expansion of remote working to the accelerated adoption of robots in hospitals, grocery stores, and other essential organizations, the novel coronavirus is driving innovations in our use of technology that will endure far beyond the pandemic itself. However, it’s important to note that the changes we’re seeing today are being driven less by the invention of new technologies, and more by evolving attitudes towards those that already exist. While there’s little doubt that practices like telecommuting will become much more common and widely accepted in the post-coronavirus era, there’s one category of technology whose future is far more controversial and uncertain: digital surveillance.
Privacy vs. Safety in The Age of Coronavirus
As the pandemic wreaks havoc in communities across the globe, governments are increasingly turning to digital surveillance techniques to help track and curb the spread of the virus. In China, telecom companies are working to deliver services that will enable the government to access a user’s travel history for the prior 14 days. In South Korea, the government has launched a “Self-Quarantine Safety Protection” tracking app to keep up with the thousands who have been placed into isolation. In Italy, police are using drones to track citizens who violate the country’s strict lockdown orders.
For many of us, these reports trigger deep-rooted fears, calling to mind images of Orwellian dystopias and repressive authoritarian regimes. Westerners, and Americans in particular, are fiercely protective of their privacy rights and civil liberties. Unfortunately, in many cases, this attitude has led to the knee-jerk rejection of potentially life-saving surveillance technologies before they have fully matured. For example, facial recognition software has been used to find thousands of missing children in India, but the still-maturing technology is already facing outright bans in both the U.S. and Europe.
This is not to suggest that privacy rights advocates don’t have good reasons for their concerns. The problem is that, in many cases, these technologies are suppressed long before policymakers have had a chance to fully explore the kinds of protections, regulations, and civil rights frameworks that might mitigate their abuse. Instead, they are swept under the rug where bad actors and clandestine organizations are free to wield them in secret—leaving the public more vulnerable than they might have been otherwise.
Shifting Attitudes toward Digital Surveillance
The coronavirus era is quickly changing attitudes toward digital surveillance. In late March, Harris Poll revealed that 60% of U.S. adults support the idea of giving the government access to anonymized cell phone location tracking data to support social distancing enforcement. The same poll found that 65% would support a public registry of those diagnosed with the virus, and a whopping 71% would be willing to share their own mobile location data to receive alerts about potential exposure.
Of course, these opinions will surely vary across demographic groups and regions. The poll found that older Americans were marginally more concerned with privacy rights, for example, and while surveillance drones might be welcome in cities like San Francisco, they’re more likely to be shot out of the sky in parts of the American Southeast. Still, on the whole, it’s no surprise that Americans are more willing to give up a measure of privacy and embrace digital surveillance methods during these frightening times. We’ve seen similar results in the past, such as in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Just as American attitudes about civil liberties eventually returned to normal in the years after 9/11, so too will they return to normal once the threat of COVID-19 has passed. Therefore, we must use this time to begin having long-overdue conversations about digital surveillance, privacy rights, and the extraordinary circumstances that justify a temporary curtailing of those rights. For better or worse, the coronavirus has shown us that civil liberties are not absolute and that there are emergency situations in which individual privacy concerns must be made subordinate to the greater public good.
Humanity Opts In
Privacy hawks will take this as a declaration of war, using the spurious “slippery slope” argument to suggest that any erosion of privacy rights is a step toward the eradication of all civil liberties. However, I don’t believe that this is necessarily the case, and early signs indicate that we may be heading in the right direction. For example, Google and Apple have announced that they will collaborate on new tools enabling health authorities to conduct contact tracing using Bluetooth proximity data. These tools will be natively embedded on all iOS and Android mobile devices—essentially 100% of the mobile market—to ensure widespread adoption, but Google and Apple representatives assist that the services will be both private and voluntary.
Now, it isn’t the good intentions of these powerful corporations that give me hope, but rather the mass cooperation that will be required to make such efforts effective. As a digital forensics specialist, I can say from years of firsthand experience that location data alone is not enough to confirm a mobile user’s whereabouts. The device could be stolen, or accidentally left in someone else’s possession, meaning public health officials will need proactive assistance and cooperation from those who opt in to the program to corroborate their location and contacts.
This gives us an unprecedented opportunity to make our citizens more knowledgeable and savvy about the ways in which they are being tracked. It will also push us to begin having thoughtful conversations about the nature of privacy in the digital era and to make more informed decisions about the situations in which we feel such surveillance methods are justified. Yes, this may lead to a reduction of privacy rights as the coronavirus continues to spread, but I believe a more knowledgeable and involved citizenry will be better able to safeguard their privacy rights over the long term.