woman with mask on walking down street with umbrella for shade
PHOTO: tam wai

COVID-19 has upended every corner of the economy and our personal lives. Even as we learn more about the virus, and countries and states start to come out of lockdown, the situation still offers more questions than answers. One of these is about its lasting effects on personal and data privacy. Here are a few questions that have been on my mind lately, as well as what I hope and think will happen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Privacy Questions for Our Post-COVID-19 Lives

The main question on many minds, mine included, is: What will society look like when we get to the other side of the pandemic in terms of attitudes towards privacy from companies, governments and the general public?

Prior to the pandemic, data privacy was top of mind for people more than it had been at any other time, with companies and governments actively working to address the public’s concerns. In addition to Europe’s GDPR regulations, California’s landmark privacy law known as CCPA went into effect in January.

Now privacy concerns have taken a back burner to more urgent public safety issues.

While privacy concerns aren’t and shouldn’t be completely set aside, it's a delicate balance to strike when facing mounting data needs. Medical researchers, governments and individuals need large amounts of data to determine the spread of the disease, help find a new vaccine, identify people’s locations for contact tracing, and prevent further outbreaks.

A number of privacy issues are at play here, one of the main ones being the creation of smartphone location-tracking apps that use Bluetooth and other technologies to identify where infected people have been, with whom they’ve been in close proximity, and then ensure those contacts undergo testing or quarantine.

Major tech companies including Apple and Google are working to create contact tracing technology, which could prove to be a blessing and a curse. These companies have huge resources and provide the operating systems for 99% of US smartphones.

The question is whether people will willingly download these apps and how useful they’ll prove to be. Adoption rates, and the ultimate success of the apps in helping control the spread of the disease, depend on people’s trust in new types of surveillance and the companies’ collection, use and storage of location and other personal data. Proposed legislation, if passed, may help assuage some concerns but is certainly no silver bullet.

States such as North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah have already introduced their own contact tracing apps. Other countries have also implemented similar apps, including Australia and Singapore. Most contact tracing app use is optional, but some countries have taken stronger measures.

South Korea now requires all new arrivals to the country to download a government-run app that tracks the user’s location and asks people to report any coronavirus symptoms. China’s mandatory system gives individuals “color-coded designations based on their health status and travel history, and a QR code that can be scanned by authorities” to determine where citizens can travel within the country. Parts of the country have gone even further by installing surveillance cameras outside, and in some cases inside the homes of quarantined individuals. 

With all this as context, this leads to some additional questions:

  • What if temporary contact tracing becomes permanent? There are many examples of "temporary" measures during a crisis becoming permanent, mainstream measures. Examples include the excessive collection and sharing of data post 9/11 and wartime income tax.
  • How will companies and governments define the end of the pandemic, and thus the end of the need for tracking and other invasive measures? What if COVID-19 never disappears or is replaced by another virus, then another, then another? Privacy lost during this pandemic can remain privacy lost indefinitely, and those who permit temporary measures may unknowingly be permitting permanent surveillance.
  • What if invasive technologies gain legitimacy during this crisis, especially if they prove to be effective measures in controlling the spread of the virus?
  • What if people become numb to tracking/surveillance/oversharing? Will they stop fighting for their privacy rights?

Related Article: Will COVID-19 Be a Tipping Point for Technology?

My Predictions for Privacy in the Months Ahead

What I hope will happen and what I think will happen are quite different.

This is a rare opportunity for humanity to come together and tackle complex, urgent issues on a global scale. If we emerge with a better idea of how to rapidly facilitate important initiatives such as the fight against COVID without permanently giving up our fundamental right to privacy, we'll actually be better off than we were before this situation began. That's what I hope will happen.

My belief, however, is that in the rush to overcome this crisis and work to avoid a global economic collapse, we'll fail to maintain the resolve on privacy rights we've built over many years and allow significant gains to evaporate in a matter of months. An eroded version of privacy will become part of the "new norm," and we’ll have to aggressively rebuild it just as we'll have to rebuild the economy if we want to return to a pre-COVID-19 state.

My ultimate hope is that privacy will be an area we make a priority to rebuild.