Fighting the Coronavirus is Impacting Our Privacy

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Information is power. Governments and private entities that have access to vast troves of information have vast power.


When governments are confronted by unprecedentedly dangerous and costly crises they naturally draw on every tool in their arsenal.

There is no reason, after all, to wage the battle against COVID-19 in 2020 with the same weapons that were employed against the Spanish flu more than 100 years ago. Today countries possess broad surveillance networks, massive databases that can be analyzed and cross-checked, location-tracking via our cellphones and AI-based facial recognition systems. When human lives are at stake, all these means are viewed as indispensable. Nevertheless, even as the dramatic events we are living through continue to develop, it is crucial for us to understand what will happen if we employ these technologies in an uncontrolled fashion.

A survey of how various countries are dealing with the pandemic reveals that the attitude toward the use of surveillance technologies in order to track citizens’ movements is a cultural and political matter. Some are exploiting the virus as another reason for ramping up the control of their citizens; some are more anxious about the infringement of privacy than about the pandemic; and others are already making preparations for the commission of inquiry that will begin its work the morning after.

Here in Israel there is the additional twist of the involvement of our storied intelligence agencies. The technology developed by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to combat terrorism has resulted in extraordinarily effective surveillance systems. But while people were standing in line to buy basic food items, their government went a step too far and authorized the Shin Bet to conduct extensive tracking of citizens as part of the effort to contain the pandemic. In the first days of the crisis, they told us there was no alternative and in any case the “contact tracing” program would be for a limited amount of time. But as the popular saying notes, “Appetite comes with eating.” The government has now indicated that it seeks to further extend the Shin Bet’s powers to track its citizens and analyze their personal data.

Once the security agency keeps tabs on individual’s locations via their cellphone, it can determine all sorts of places visited and meetings held, including some that people would rather not have the authorities aware of.

When the tracking of call history is added – text messages and web browsing – there is cause for even greater concern. If you consider the possibilities at the agency’s fingertips, the information it will have access to becomes almost endless. They can take cellphone numbers and match them against databases that provide subscribers names. Age can be extracted from the population registry. Health fund records can be searched to find out whether people have any preexisting conditions. Citizen’s ethnicity, religious beliefs, income and occupation – and perhaps even their political leanings – will all become fair game.

Information is power. Governments and private entities that have access to vast troves of information have vast power. There is a real danger that major historical events, such as we are experiencing at this moment, can be leveraged exponentially in the efforts to gather information and engage in mass surveillance, data analysis and citizens’ control based on the outcomes.

In the United States, in the wake of 9/11, the Internet and communications networks became the largest spy enterprise in history. It took a decade for its depth, breadth and danger to become clear, and the first limits on the collection of data and how it is used were imposed only in 2015.

Every event like the coronavirus outbreak creates a new technological ecosystem that does not stop functioning when the trigger event is over, but instead remains in place even when the crisis is resolved – as if it had always been part of our lives. This is what we can expect to happen now, too.

In the next few months we are sure to see quite a few start-ups that offer “smart services” to prevent epidemics. It will no longer be simply a matter of geolocation via cellphone providers, but also of the information provided by Google and Waze, Moovit and Fitbit.

What’s wrong if companies can identify people who are walking around without a mask? Or operate cameras that can pick out a person in a crowd who is running a fever? This is not a dystopian prophecy. There are already many firms today that are competing to offer services of precisely this sort.

We cannot wait for the dangers of the virus to pass and find ourselves in a new reality. Every country and society has to decide now what level of surveillance it is willing to tolerate. In Europe, where collection of personal data is less tolerated, they are complying with the European data privacy regulations even during the present emergency.

In Taiwan and South Korea, for example, where the information is collected and cross-checked, it is not forwarded to the intelligence services (unlike the current practice in Israel).

Some argue that if people insist on protecting the right to privacy they must have something to hide. I would put it a different way: it is precisely those who evade transparency who have something to hide. We must remember that what is at stake is public compliance with government instructions. Such obedience is predicated on trust, on a sense of solidarity and mutual responsibility; it cannot be based on fear.

At the same time, we must come up with a new and transparent definition of the goals and needs of surveillance. There must be oversight of the use made of the various technologies: who wields them, who can access the data gathered, how it is secured and how it is expunged. We need to move to data collection systems that are based on consent, and establish an agency to monitor the gathering and use of personal data for dealing with the current pandemic.

History will determine whether the drastic steps that have been taken here in Israel were necessary, or whether they expressed a culture that tends to histrionics and excessive reliance on the defense and security agencies. Even if we want to make the fullest use of technology against the coronavirus, we do not have to accept that all means and outcomes as tolerable or legitimate.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.