As the current corona pandemic continues to claim victims, the pressure is on governments to do everything they can to stop it. To help prevent the spread of the virus, governments employ technology. That in itself is a good thing but there are also privacy concerns in the battle against corona. Once we get the virus under control, will this technology be switched off? And also, what privacy concerns loom for people working from home or children suddenly in home schooling? Both in terms of life and and economy the corona pandemic is a nightmare but also a chance.
We all know the saying that desperate times call for desperate matters. With a pandemic raging and corona claiming thousands of lives, I am certainly not advocating a soft approach. We need to act to get this virus under control and to keep people safe. If that means staying home, social distancing, cancelling events, closing schools, restaurants and offices, then so be it. As long as we keep crucial infrastructure and health care up and running.
Apart from illness and the loss of life, there is more to consider. There are some serious privacy concerns in the battle against corona. Let’s just look at a couple of these.
Working from home
Lots of people are now stuck at home during this crisis, trying their best to work. Many businesses already had the infrastructure in place to enable that, many didn’t. What we’ve seen is a rush to all kinds of online collaboration platforms where out of a pressing need to communicate, matters such as privacy and security take a back seat.
Some organizations make the wrong choice of collaboration platform, like ZOOM. As many users flock to ZOOM, underlying security and privacy issues surface, putting information at risk of being disclosed to unauthorized individuals.
People who weren’t used to working from home are suddenly placed in this unfamiliar situation. They have not been properly briefed how to handle sensitive information outside the office and are faced with sharing information with co-workers and clients using insecure channels like Dropbox and email. This increases the risk of data leaks.
It also leads to some embarrassing videos on social media of people having their cam turned on while being naked or on the toilet during a web conference! Must be great to have colleagues who share this on social media, by the way.
You get hackers and other malicious folk targeting people working from home. This ranges from scams convincing people to donate money to fake corona charities, emails supposedly from official sources urging people to click on links, fake “corona tracker” apps that contain malware and targeted ransomware attacks. Some of these directly target hospitals, which is really the lowest level you can get ethically.
Not a good time to be a CISO.
Many of the privacy concerns listed above, are also true when it comes to children having to learn from home now that schools are temporarily closed. We see classes being delivered over all kinds of platforms, ZOOM among them. Other schools are trapped in the Google ecosystem and switch to Google Classroom. For parents who are mindful of their children’s online activity, this is cause for concern. Which companies suddenly have access to information about your child?
States causing privacy concerns in the battle against corona
My greatest cause for concern is that states use the corona pandemic as a catalyst to expand their data gathering and access. While information is essential to decision making, the usefulness of access to information has to be questioned. We need to consider if access to information is proportional as well. It’s not a question of either give up your privacy or die of Covid19, that is a false dichotomy. There are other options and all of these should be carefully examined.
Some countries attempt to use location tracking via smart phones as a tool to see where concentrations of people are gathering. This is useful when it comes to enforcing social distancing. This data is supposedly anonymized but in reality, anonymized data often offers more than enough to uniquely identify individuals.
Through a combination of street cameras, police patrols, drones, location data from smart phones and mandatory apps for smart phones, countries try to enforce quarantine rules. This comes at a significant cost in terms of individual privacy and freedom.
Some countries go so far as to require people to install apps on their phones in order to track movement, and see if they may have been in contact with an infected individual. The Dutch government is currently debating whether the use of such an app should be mandatory.
Increased and more detailed monitoring of telecommunications takes place, to combat the spread of false information about the virus or to detect cyber-criminals targeting key infrastructure or hospitals. However, in the wide net that is being cast, a lot of information from innocent civilians is caught as well.
Countries like China and also the UK use extensive CCTV systems paired with facial recognition software to identify people who go out, meet others, who may be breaking stay-at-home orders, etc. Again, these cameras film everyone, not just the bad guys.
Access to healthcare information
To safe time and thus to save lives, restrictions on access to healthcare information are eased or even removed in many countries. Of course, when you’re in the ICU and near death, you may be unable to provide doctors and nurses with crucial information so I can understand the reasoning behind this all to well. However, health care information is often very private so we should still take care to protect access.
What about after?
In the end, we are going to get this virus under control. The time ahead is grim and unfortunately many people will become seriously ill and too many of those will die. The invasive measures taken will not prevent that though hopefully they will have a positive impact. What concerns me, is how many of those measures will disappear when the crisis is over. The kind of invasion of privacy we are seeing now, is unprecedented in many modern, democratic states. Will we be able to put the lid back on Pandora’s box now that it is open? Or will governments decide that having location tracking, facial recognition and mandatory apps is necessary? You never know, a crisis always looms on the horizon somewhere.
So why do I say that corona is a nightmare but also a chance? Allow me to explain. Why corona is a nightmare doesn’t need explaining but there is still some good to be had. In many ways this crisis is forcing all of us to consider what is really important to us. And we are learning things that may be unexpected to many. Let me list a few examples below.
Greed of major corporations
If there is one thing that the current crisis teaches us, it should be that the goals of major corporations may be directly at odds with our well being and even survival. The greed and lack of concern many major corporations show now, should not be forgotten when this ordeal is over. Profit margins should not matter more than people.
Human life is paramount
Mandatory staying at home, closing bars, restaurants, parks and schools are just a few drastic measures that many nations have taken. All of these measures are focused on one thing: keeping our medical system running and not to overwhelm it. The preservation of human life is paramount to governments but also to all the people who comply with these measures willingly, making the best of a difficult situation. Restaurants forced to close give away their food for free, neighbors look after a each other or people sharing tips online on how to make face masks. The solidarity shown by many is in stark contrast to corporate greed. It shows we don’t have to be mean or selfish.
Refocus our values
Stuck inside, working from home and not able to go anywhere, gives us all ample time to think. The life we’ve taken for granted for so long is suddenly over. Now we can moan and groan about this misfortune and hope that things will go back to the way they were before. However, chances are things will never go back to the way they were. When this pandemic is over, the world will be a changed place. Now is an excellent chance to think about what we want this new world to be.
It’s never been more clear who our society really depends on. As it turns out, it’s not advertising people, it’s not investment bankers and it’s not celebrities. When things go wrong, we depend on doctors and nurses, teachers, people stocking shelves in the store, delivery people, IT personnel, police, ambulance drivers, garbage collectors and all other service oriented professions. Professions we often look down on. These are the people who can’t stay home, these are the people risking their lives and these are the people we shouldn’t forget. A memorial won’t cut it, we need to appreciate these critical roles in our society. As cliche as it sounds, these people are heroes.
Herald of a cleaner future
With so many people staying at home, no longer commuting to work and with flights cancelled, we are seeing unprecedented reductions in air pollution. Economies all over the world hit the pause button in a global effort to delay the spread of the corona virus. This gives us reason to be hopeful because if we can come together to fight a virus, we can also come together to fight climate chance, a danger that may prove far more deadly than this pandemic.
A nightmare but also a chance
The corona pandemic is an absolute nightmare. The news about people dying, people losing their jobs because their business going bankrupt is heartbreaking. Most of us want life to go back to normal as soon as possible. But we have a once in a lifetime chance to make a new normal, a better normal. A chance to reshape the world into a place that is more fair, a place that cares more for people than for profits, where we value our fellow humans and where we finally come together to tackle climate change.
It’s the least we can do to honor those who risk their health and safety and who give their lives so that we may live. We owe them nothing less.