Data privacy… or not?
Netflix’s release of the documentary The Social Dilemma is a reflection of the growing concerns regarding privacy and technology. While the documentary focuses more on how large Silicon Valley corporations control individuals, the pandemic has led many of these individuals to question the government and their use of technology, specifically through contact tracing programs. These have been used as a method of decreasing the number of positive Covid-19 cases by informing people whether they have been in close contact with an infected person.
If we take it back to the fundamentals, the main reason why countries have governments is to guarantee the wellbeing of all their citizens, which is why having access to the public’s data should not pose a risk to individuals.
A government’s health minister as a hero
The health minister in Taiwan, Chen Shih-chung, has become somewhat of a national hero. During the height of the pandemic, Chen would update the Taiwanese citizens on the Covid situation in briefings that took place every day at 14:00 until June.
What would he say?
In these briefings and on Taiwan’s CDC (Center for Disease Control) website, Chen and the CECC (Central Epidemic Command Center) would describe the age, gender, travel history, and symptoms of the infected person. The descriptions could be as specific as to how “Case #43 didn’t travel abroad recently but she sat across from Case #39 in floral design classes on February 24 and February 25”, in an update from March 5.
Because of these hyper-specific descriptions and his rapid imposition of tighter Covid regulations, the number of deaths never exceeded seven and thus, Chen received a 91% approval rating in an opinion poll organized by TVBS, Taiwan’s cable news network, in March.
The lack of domestically transmitted cases in Taiwan since April has shown that methods of tightening surveillance on individuals work, which is why this has become a necessary way to guarantee the health of citizens.
Let’s face it. Most of us spend our day using our phones to do things such as pay with a digital footprint on Apple Pay, watch YouTube recommended videos that are tailored to our interests, and travel with the guidance of Google Maps’ GPS function. It seems we have come to accept that privacy, in the words of Mark Zuckerberg is “no longer a social norm.” So, in all reality, what is the real harm of using one more tracking app?
Then what should we do?
The only real way to justify not using such apps would be to completely detach oneself from the large tech corporations. This could be done by replacing the use of social media apps such as Facebook with more encrypted ones like Telegram or using privacy-friendly search engines such as DuckDuckGo instead of Google. Professor at Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics in AI Carissa Veliz even suggests actually reading the terms and conditions and not just clicking ‘accept all’. Only when all these connections to large tech companies and tracking methods are obliterated, then one can begin to argue the ethics behind the government accessing our data.
No one wants to be controlled by a 1984-esque landscape, which is why many consider the disclosing of data an issue, even during a global pandemic. Many governments have resorted to using technology to improve contact tracing techniques through Bluetooth or GPS. While the positive intention might be there, Veliz argues that a global health crisis does not justify this degree of intrusion on our privacy, especially since certain governments lack funding and expertise in technology, and therefore give more control to tech institutions over the data of individuals.
Is there evidence?
A 2018 study by Imperial College of London demonstrates how if just 1% of London’s population downloads a faulty app, a digital hacker would be able to potentially track half of the people in London, without their consent. To avoid this, cryptography techniques would have to be placed so that a centralized server would not actually have to see the data. The recent September scandal in Wales, where the details of 18,000 positive Covid patients' tests were published by mistake, shows how this has yet to be done.
In her recently published book, Privacy is Power, Veliz argues how your data may be used against you. In fact, just knowing a few of your locations is enough for privacy to be breached. A study done by MIT in 2013, showed how just knowing four places that a person has been to is enough to identify them 95% of the time. People do not need another way of being tracked or another way for mass surveillance to be legitimized, which is why many people have resorted not to use contact tracing apps.
Because of this fear of mass surveillance, many contact tracing apps around the world have not succeeded. One of these is the NHS Track & Trace App as people in the UK have not been forced to use it, but have only been strongly recommended to.
How does it work?
Before the second national ‘lockdown’ in the UK, many restaurants would ask their clients to scan the QR Code on the NHS app and if they did not have it, to write their contact details on paper instead. As many people did not like the idea of registering where they were at a specific time on an app and because they were given the choice, they would resort to the more primitive option of writing on paper.
What happens then?
If not everyone is willing to use it, then the actual app becomes ineffective and quite inaccurate. In fact, the head of policy at Ada Lovelace Institute, Imogen Parker, explains that the app would be effective if around 60% to 80% of the population downloaded it; the percentage of adoption in the UK seems to be lower than 30%. So, in this regard, only the few people that do have it on their phones become victims of the government’s mass surveillance.
Something to think about: In terms of your own country, what has been (or would be) the public’s reaction to their data being accessed by the government during the pandemic?