As we adjust lives in the COVID-19 era, we are increasingly being asked to trade personal privacy to advance public health.
This has happened all over the world and has generally found widely acceptance for a number of reasons.
First, there is a sense of emergency in which we all must come together and in which extreme measures are somehow acceptable.
Second, a global pandemic is a scenario in which we specifically turn to governments for solutions – a phenomenon which may boost social democracy and fact-based politics, pleasing many. At such a time and toward such ends we might forgive the kind of Big Brother heavy-handedness that we might otherwise resist.
Third, the sheer breadth of changes that we have somehow adjusted to in the past two months has been too shocking to leave much head space for focusing on any one thing. When we cannot leave our homes, when borders are closed, when industries are collapsing and masses of people are unemployed, who can focus on privacy.
Fourth, and perhaps most nefarious: we have, alas, been used to giving up our privacy, bit by bit, with ever more impact, for over a decade now. How many people really read the Terms and Conditions, actually reject our favorite sites’ cookies policy, or forego the tradeoffs that give us targeted results on our digital activity?
In any case, people will tell themselves, many of the current, COVID-19 related steps such as track-and-trace are noble and undoubtedly life-saving measures that will help us return to a closer version of normal.
It’s all completely understandable. But we must not let our shared frustration and COVID-19 fatigue allow us to give away our privacy. This is a massive problem for us as a society — for privacy, once it’s taken away, often cannot be fully restored.
Governments, like commercial entities, political movements and individuals, are not wired to easily give up assets – and the ramped-up right to pry into our lives is an asset. Even once the coronavirus threat subsides, expect the governments to resist quickly dialing down on their newfound and tremendously valuable right to invade our privacy.
Many officials will do so citing the threat of a return of the virus – and in some countries, especially those that were hard-hit by the first wave, that may be very effective.
Others might pull a bait-and-switch and start focusing on the policing benefits of privacy invasion: there are clear advantages to police (or tax authorities, or public health officials, or regulatory bodies, or spy agencies) in being able to track us. They will argue that the coronavirus period surfaced the value of such measures, enabled the functionality to develop and be fine-tuned. It will be presented as a felicitous collateral benefit of the crisis. In many places, especially those hard-hit by crime, this too will find a willing audience.
So watch out. Beyond the potential for people to passively allowing personal privacy to erode, I fear most do not fully understand the implications of new public health measures.
It means your financial history is exposed and payment systems may be compromised. It means your browsing history might be public. It means your location might be known. It means your documents might be distributed. It means your identity might be stolen and you may be impersonated. It could bankrupt you, imperil you and ruin your life.
Before we rush to re-open our global economy and communities, we would do well to agree on several core principles to help us maintain our privacy throughout this trying time, without compromising public health. To that end I would like to propose the following Digital Privacy Paradigm:
- Each privacy concession we make must have a very good specific reason
- Each concession we make should be time-restricted
- Each concession we make should be reexamined for effectiveness and fairness
- Wherever possible, there should be opt-outs and appeals processes
- There should be minimal violation of basic rights
More than anything, though, you should be aware of the dangers – and also of the possible solutions and the means of protection. If we can adopt core principles as guideposts in the new economy, and world that emerges after this pandemic need not be Orwellian.