Protecting Privacy in Difficult Times

12 Oct 2020

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It is an understatement quite literally of the century, to say that the world was turned upside down in the first quarter of 2020. As the highly contagious novel coronavirus; later named as COVID-19 turned from an epidemic into a pandemic, our borders were closed and streets deserted. Humans that thrive on interactions with each other were suddenly told to stop socializing physically even their neighbors. A large population that stepped out to work from 9 to 5 suddenly had to adapt to working from home. For most of the urban population that had a PC and a working internet connection, this was a surprisingly easy enough transition.

Coping with sudden change in lifestyle

What happened to our social contacts though? Social media played an important role in keeping people connected. Grandparents discovered zoom calls, people finally had time to connect with long lost friends, and kids got busy with iPads, Kindles, and TikTok videos. Even with this help available, we started noticing effects of these sudden and drastic changes in our lifestyle. Apart from the obvious psychological effects, what came under threat is something that most of us have taken for granted for a long time, our privacy. Till not long ago, my address, my phone number, even my photos were accessible only to people with whom I shared these. A large-scale use of technology in these troubled times has brought this notion under scrutiny and the concerns are just about picking up.

Even as these technological advancements helped a large population to stay home and stay safe, the techniques that were employed to control this pandemic have far reaching consequences. As we reasonably settle in the situation, it is time to analyze what is going on and how will this affect us permanently.

Surveillance during pandemic

Governments across the world made use of technology to the fullest, to keep the pandemic under control. Widespread internet penetration enabled public health officials to release valid and relevant information from time to time and keep rumors under control. This timely information dispersal alone may have saved millions of lives.

Local administrations in most countries used drones to monitor and reinforce lockdowns. Drones helped prevent large gatherings and thereby spread of the disease. There was a wide use of data available through smart phones; call records and geo locations to track contacts of people who may have come in contact with COVID positive individuals. Disclosing the personal information, health status etc. though encouraged, was optional in some countries. Some administrations however, went as far as doing the tracking on their own and making the information public. A few over-zealous police departments even went as far as locking people inside their own homes in the name of greater good.

At individual level

A huge population still relies on financial transactions in a traditional way, either by cash or credit card. Suddenly, they had to move to online payment platforms. The elderly and less tech savvy people of this category became sitting ducks for phishing attacks or scams. New to the world of online transactions, these people fell for scams easily and readily gave their personal and sensitive information on dubious websites.

A number of smart phone apps have also popped up that supposedly help us fight us the virus. For instance, apps that claim to check your oxygen level by either facial recognition or index finger print. Apart from being inaccurate, the data collected through these apps can be easily used to sabotage a person’s finances.

There are some voluntary download apps that use the Bluetooth technology to detect when a user comes into a prolonged and close contact with another user who is using such an app and later turns out to be positive. However, for these apps to have any positive impact a large population has to use it extensively and yes voluntarily. The results are yet to be seen. It is clearly a two-edged sword, if all the privacy protocols are followed then the information that you get is so miniscule that it defeats the purpose. On the other hand, even one loophole is a major privacy breach.

There have been cases where people got alerted about a particular place or shop being at the center of some confirmed cases and the businesses suffered terribly. Incidents such as these have built a sort of mistrust in people to report data and that’s clearly to be expected.

Privacy threats

A pandemic after all is an existential threat and all means necessary must be deployed to save lives. On the other hand, human right activists and thinkers have now started raising concerns about the machinery that is getting ready and oiled should any establishment decides to use this against its people.

The recent development in Facial Recognition has opened another lid of Pandora’s Box. There are widespread concerns over how AI and Facial recognition software can be used by both anti-social elements and law enforcement agencies to the detriment of the society. What makes things worse is, there are no clear laws to prevent companies from harnessing the data or photos that you willingly and unsuspectingly uploaded for completely innocent reasons.

The road ahead

Just a couple of decades back, the biggest and perhaps the only worry about privacy that people had were if their phones were being tapped. If you were reasonably cautious with your social security number, you were reasonably safe. Now, everything is in public domain and everything is interlinked. One misstep and everything can come crumbling down.

Now, more than ever, we need better laws around cyber security and privacy protection. And most of all, more awareness and vigilance at the individual level to protect ourselves as systems around us continue to evolve.

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