COVID-19: A Question of Privacy

“Finding out that you've been exposed to a serious disease through a push notification may still seem like something out of dystopian science fiction. But the ingredients for that exact scenario will be baked into Google and Apple's operating system..” (Source: WIRED)


Contact tracing apps are being developed to help prevent new outbreaks. The idea is to promote active usage of an in-built Bluetooth system that would let you know if you were exposed to the virus when someone to whom you were closer than, let’s say, six feet, tests positive.


A number of policies have yet to be created that would ensure the least amount of privacy being invaded. At first glance, contact tracing has quite a few obvious issues like false positives or negatives, trolls pretending to have been tested positive, data being used for ads, etc. These issues can be dealt with. However, the real risk is the government deciding to keep the system in place once the pandemic is over.


“Surveillance inertia is remarkably difficult to resist. Norms get set and practices and tools become entrenched. And who can say when this will wind down? We’re still dealing with the supposedly temporary surveillance authorized almost 20 years ago in the wake of after 9/11. Rollbacks are rare and highly unlikely because the tools we build today will create a path dependency that will shape our future data and surveillance practices.” (Source: Los Angeles Times)


The 2001 Patriot Act was aimed at foreign surveillance, but it also increased the government’s ability to snoop on American citizens. Section 215, in particular, gave the FBI the right to obtain anything without a warrant. This provision expired in March but it will be up and running again in no time.





Another bill that could be enacted while everybody is distracted by the misfortunes that the COVID-19 has brought about is called the EARN IT Act. This bill is a major threat to privacy. The original intentions are to limit the spread of CSAM (child sexual abuse material) but in practice, it is a sneak ban on encryption.


Should you worry about this bill?


If you ever used any online services like banking, telehealth, or any online government services, you’d probably wish to keep that information private. Another reason why we should be more aware of the implications is that journalists would no longer be able to keep their sources private, meaning that whistleblowers will have no option of staying safe.


Banning strong encryption creates a backdoor for the U.S. (and, by proxy, any foreign) government to access Americans’ private information. There’s no way to only give access to the “good guys”.


“It’s hard for malicious actors to listen in on your in-person meetings about highly sensitive topics. Now that you have to hold those discussions online, the EARN IT Act’s sponsors are determined to make life easier for these adversaries. The EARN IT Act would trade away everyone’s privacy and security without making children safer in return.”- says Riana Pfefferkorn, the associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. (Source: Brookings)


With most of our day-to-day activities moving online, cyberspace is deemed to change. It’s important to pay attention to how, and if, your data is being protected.


Should tracking and surveilling ever be justified?


Photo by Noelle Otto

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