Emergency measures tend to persist long after the emergency itself. This is the reason why Yuval Noah Harari believes we should be very skeptical of the various levels at which privacy is violated to combat the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, the same technology that can empower an individual more than ever before can also be used to restrict their freedom at unprecedented levels.
First, the facts
How can a region severely affected by COVID-19, like the city of Wuhan or Northern Italy, return to everyday life after the worst is over? The answer is simple, according to scientists: they can’t. Until a vaccine is developed, extreme contact tracing is the only way to break infection chains. If this was 1918, humanity would have to get back to work, having to endure the constant toll of the coronavirus on the workforce and the pensioners. But this isn’t 1918. Technology, for better or for worse, allows individuals and governments to monitor their lives at a previously unthinkable level of detail.
COVID-19 versus privacy: The Chinese “example”
China is proud of the draconian yet effective measures it took to combat the coronavirus. As complete lockdowns slowly give way to a post-COVID-19 reality, China is prepared to mount what is perhaps the biggest assault on privacy ever using technology. All Chinese citizens that want to return to society must install the Party’s COVID-19 app. The app is opaque in its function – the full extent of monitoring is left to the imagination. It classifies users into one of three risk categories. “Green” means there’s nothing in a user’s history to suggest they’re infected. “Yellow” means users must subject themselves to a 7-day quarantine. “Red” means that a 14-day quarantine is warranted. Except for informing citizens of their duties, the app also makes sure that they are actually obeying their prescribed quarantines, by constantly reporting their location to the authorities.
Israel uses mobile networks to track COVID-19
Beginning on March 18th, the Israeli secret service tracks the location of COVID-19 patients and those they may have come into contact with through their mobile phone. This wealth of data allowed them the creation of “The Shield” – an app that automatically warns Israeli users that they may have come into contact with the coronavirus. How much data the app steals in return – that’s not known.
Google/Apple: A less invasive means of contact tracing?
Google and Apple recently announced that they are jointly developing a COVID-19 tracking app for both Android and iOS. The app uses Bluetooth and random IDs to anonymously track users’ close contacts. Whenever a user tests positive for the coronavirus, all users whose app registered their ID are notified and encouraged to self-quarantine. For now, the app has to be downloaded willingly by the user (thus constitutes opt-in) and doesn’t monitor any data except for Bluetooth IDs. But the future for privacy is grim: the companies are already planning to incorporate this feature in their operating systems (so that it’s impossible not to have it installed), and if required by a government turned-authoritarian to combat the virus, expanding its monitoring of data to exact location history, calls etc and de-anonymizing them would be only too easy.
COVID-19 and privacy: a false dilemma
As Yuval Noah Harari astutely observed in his Financial Times article and his NPR radio interview, being forced to chose between privacy, freedom and safety from COVID-19 is a deceptive dilemma. Instead of relinquishing control of most sensitive data to governments, (or even worse, corporations) individuals are in a unique position to empower their choices. If the wealth of data coming from heartbeat, temperature, activity and location sensors is decentralized, life-saving contact tracing can take place, with none of the totalitarianism. As Harari himself put it, any unavoidable privacy violations we must endure to fight COVID-19 must be temporary. Non-extensible sunset clauses have to be put in place and enforced by watchdogs with actual power. If citizens surrender their freedom unconditionally, they may never get it back.