Is Covid-19 changing our attitude to technology and privacy?

As authorities begin to adopt policies based on the shift of public sentiment, we are seeing changes to what is acceptable

Statistics and experts seem to suggest that, as I write this, China – the starting point and original epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic – is started to contain its spread. But it has come at a cost.

Even before the outbreak, Chinese citizens were subject to far more stringent levels of state surveillance, and technology-driven tracking measures than most of us in the West are used to. In the changing world we find ourselves living in now, that intrusion into day-to-day life has greatly intensified.

Officials have deployed helmet-mounted cameras able to identify residents with raised body temperatures amongst crowds of people, and smartphone apps use machine learning to rate citizens using a color-coded scheme that awards them a “risk level” of red, yellow or green.

Drones armed with heat-sensing cameras, loudspeakers, and even "chemical spray jets” have been deployed to enforce the strict quarantine laws that can see citizens jailed for up to seven years for non-compliance. And residents have reported being unable to access their homes in locked-down apartment blocks when automated security measures determine that data suggests they pose too high a risk.

It certainly isn’t just China – in Iran, the government encouraged downloading of an app that it said would be used to diagnose contagion, without mentioning that is could also be used to track the movements of everyone using it, as well as who they came into contact with. The app was quickly removed from app stores and disowned by officials when its true capabilities were revealed by security researchers.

The good news is that – in China, at least - these measures seem to be working. As of writing, the official line from China is that the domestic spread of the disease seems to have been almost stopped completely, with the vast majority of new infections being brought in from abroad.

But as the epicenter of the outbreak shifts from Asia to western nations, what does this say about the measures leaders here will have to consider imposing to achieve the same success? And how will citizens feel about being subjected to the same level of technological intrusion into their private lives?

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, westerners became aware of the need for a balance between state surveillance in the name of security and personal freedoms – in particular, the right to privacy. Current events have brought this into even sharper focus. To many, terrorism may have always seemed a distant threat. But with every state in the US now reporting coronavirus infections, as well as just about every country in the world, most of us feel as if danger is near, and very real.

Advocacy of measures that would often be termed “draconian” – particularly if they are happening in China or other nations with openly authoritarian rulership - is becoming more frequent. Western leaders, including Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, have been accused of being slow to act, or even of prioritizing their own political interests over public safety, for delaying measures such as lockdowns, business closures, and the banning of public events. 

And as authorities begin to take measure and adopt policy based on this shift of public sentiment, we are seeing changes to what is acceptable.

In the UK, the government is using (so far, anonymized) individuals’ location data to measure how people are complying with mandates for isolation, self-quarantine, and social isolation. Aggregated data from phone provider 02 is now being used to monitor public movement around London, and this could be used to understand peoples’ reactions to newly-imposed restrictions on public transport – as no-one really knows what the effects of this will be.

While few would object at this moment in time to this sort of analysis of randomized, aggregated behavioral data, we know from China that things can potentially be taken far further. How many more infections and deaths are needed before tracking of individuals who are known to be infected, or just in danger of being infected, seems not just justifiable but a necessity?

One important factor that must be kept in mind is openness. These changed times – dramatic though they may be – don’t appear to give any added justification for this data-gathering and analysis to be carried out secretly. Unlike the fight against terrorism, there’s no argument that public knowledge of these enhanced security measures can limit their effectiveness. The virus won’t adapt its methods due to knowing that we are tracking it.

There is a danger that these changes and actions will lead to the establishment of a "new normal." Once this outbreak is contained, and our lives have adapted to the measures needed to keep it so, there's always going to be the danger of another outbreak on the horizon. Just as the years following the Second World War were spend putting measures in place to reduce the likelihood of another global conflict, prevention of future viral pandemics will become a priority of governments and security services for many years to come. This could involve technology such as biometric surveillance, artificial intelligence, and movement tracking, becoming an accepted aspect of life. Governments and tech providers will have to think very carefully about the way that this is done, to ensure it can't be exploited either by those looking to make profits or to further their political aims.

The world is changing fast. Restaurants, sports events, foreign travel, and family gatherings have vanished from many of our lives. The way things are heading, the next casualty could be our concerns over privacy and freedom from state surveillance of our day-to-day activities. As much as this may seem sensible and a matter of priority, it could be the beginning of a journey down a dangerous path, if careful thought is not given to all of its implications.  

Bernard Marr is an internationally best-selling author, popular keynote speaker, futurist, and a strategic business & technology advisor to governments and companies. He helps organisations improve their business performance, use data more intelligently, and understand the implications of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, blockchains, and the Internet of Things. His opinion piece was published at LinkedIn.

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