Is our Covid-19 data safe and private?

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Is our Covid-19 data safe and private?

In a public-health emergency we need to monitor people. And we also need to be careful about our privacy. Nick Dowson writes.



‘Be quick and go home,’ said the robot voice. A black box with four wheels, police logos, and cameras questioned a man in an empty street in Tunis. It asked him why he was outside during the coronavirus lockdown.

Everyone who approached had to show their ID to a police officer. He was controlling the machine remotely.

This robo-cop was one of the very different technological answers to Covid-19. Some have had successes.

There was an increase in Covd-19 in South Korea in May, linked to nightclubs in Seoul. They used credit-card data, GPS tracking, video surveillance, and records from the nightclubs to track more than 45,000 people.

But as governments and private companies try to collect our private data, we should also know the risks.

As there were more lockdowns, there were more and more contact-tracing apps. Governments said it was a good way to help stop the virus but at the same time many countries did not follow the WHO’s test, trace, and isolate approach.

Many countries were quick to try new technology and not the tried-and-tested ‘analogue’ solutions. They ignored traditional public-health responses, such as human contact tracers.

Governments did not only use contact tracing. In Poland people in quarantine had to take selfies every day with a coronavirus app to show they were at home. The UAE and Turkey took similar action.

Data’s dark side

Coronavirus needs new responses. But data collection and surveillance also bring serious dangers.

In South Korea publishing detailed information led to public shaming and even homophobia.

Governments could also use data about contacts between people to watch their movements and to stop protests.

Advertisers can make money from private data. Health insurers can use it to decide their prices or not to give insurance cover at all.

Covid-19 is making these actions normal, for example, technologies like facial recognition. In Moscow they used it with public CCTV to find people breaking lockdown. Facial recognition is mostly a technology for control by governments and bosses. For example, the big accountancy company PwC has the idea to use it to track absent workers from their home desks. It also makes racial and other discrimination worse.

A Covif-19 firewall

Collecting only a little data needed for with restricted access can be good.

For example, health agencies could use it but not the police or other government bodies, and it they could delete it later.

There is a question of trust here, too. Access Now thinks that companies who abuse human rights abuse should not use data collection programmes.

Access Now also calls for all software used to be open source.

Where and how our data is stored is also important.

How policy and technological choices combine can be seen in different approaches to contact-tracing apps.

Some countries want to store all data in a central server but Apple and Google want a more decentralized system. This offers more privacy as it does not automatically upload contacts.

But this also raises questions. Apple and Google were part of US intelligence agencies’ surveillance system Prism. Their idea would tell democratic governments what contact-tracing apps they can use. Hacking the system

Where there are no safeguards, there is another possibility: misuse.

In India many people do not have smartphones. The Indian government made the Aarogya Setu contact-tracing app compulsory. A Bangalore software engineer hacked it so it could still flash the required green badge even when its tracking technologies were removed.

He understood the problem of privacy and public interest and he did not want to stop the responses to the virus, so he only shared it with close friends.

Artists have tried make-up and fashion accessories to stop facial recognition. And for protesters in the UK, wearing masks makes it impossible for police to ban face coverings in protests.

In many ways the Covid-19 is increasing collection of data.

From Gmail to Facebook, big companies already hold data with information about our lives and relationships. Smartphones add location history. Now they want to make money from more online learning and healthcare.

Using open-source programs like Firefox, LibreOffice, and Linux or online services run by trusted companies like Wikimedia and Riseup can help. They give information about what they do with our data and often increase privacy protection.

But not using social technologies like Facebook is difficult for many people.

We need to bring digital infrastructure under democratic control and to decentralize it where possible. We need information on what data is used and how it is used.

Covid-19 shows that our digital infrastructure is really important for communication, work, and organizing lockdown. But it is too important to leave in the hands of billionaires.

And we should not leave it in the hands of authoritarian leaders to monitor populations and use tracking not only in every room but in every pocket.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been change