Privacy and technology in times of crisis
Privacy is a fundamental right. For some people, that consideration alone settles the debate on whether private information should be publicly available, either to governments or companies, even in the hopes of achieving a greater good. However, 2020 brought an interesting turn in the debate over private data. The pandemic, a global sanitary crisis, frames the debate in terms of public health: an indispensable public good. If sacrificing our privacy, location or personal health information gave us an edge against the pandemic… would it be justified to do it for the greater good?
Open data for the public good
Data privacy has evolved throughout the years, sometimes pushed forward by government scandals or data breaches of private information. Very famously, Edward Snowden, ex-NSA and CIA employee in the United States, revealed a massive surveillance program held by the US government with links to governments all around the world. Most recently, the Cambridge Analytica scandal filtered the information of more than 50 million Facebook profiles, recollected by the consulting firm, for political campaigns. With each and every privacy breach, measures have been taken in order to protect personal information.
The other side of the story resides with open data. This idea doesn’t necessarily mean that private information should be public — accessible to everyone — but that government officials should have all the information they need to fulfill their government tasks. Not too long ago, governments managed collective information, due to the difficulties of collecting such information outside of official censuses. Democratizing data from society has helped governments achieve diverse goals, helping close the gap between social interests and state bureaucracy. Defenders of open data hope that, by providing the government with additional personal — anonymized — data, we can help it achieve much more for the public good.
COVID-19, a plot twist
The pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has posed immense challenges to governments all around the world. Providing accurate information about the virus, the ways it spreads, and its symptoms, was high among the priorities of governments early on. But as the disease spread more widely, additional epidemiological information was needed to design tracing systems, calculate effective quarantine periods, and implement other measures which are crucial in the to battle against the virus. In this context, the debate on whether the government can, for instance, track the location of its citizens was of paramount importance.
Theoretical debates about the tradeoff between full personal privacy and the need of governments to manage private information can continue for ever. However, in some way the controversy is being settled in practice, as governments take additional steps aimed at tracking people in times of coronavirus. Many countries are taking advantage of the functionality built into Google’s and Apple’s mobile operating systems to develop apps that track location and trace contacts between people. China, perhaps the utmost example of a technological surveillance state, heavily relied on location tracking of citizens to better understand the spread of the virus.
Public opinion largely agrees, vocally or silently, that exceptional times require exceptional measures. However, dissenting voices have been heard.
Regulators and politicians know they can bend the rules in times of crisis, but the public fears that, once the pandemic ends, some in authority might not backtrack in their newly developed habit of capturing information about their citizenry.
For now, all we can say is that the debate, far from settled, is becoming increasingly complex.