These are strange times we live in. The effects of the worldwide pandemic we live in have definitely left their mark on the “normality” of our lives and it seems that these marks won’t go away even if the virus does. One of the most notable areas of discussion since the pandemic has somewhat been controlled, is the one of privacy.
The question of whether technology, artificial intelligence and social media were “forcing” people to share and give up too much of their personal information, was a huge topic of discussion way before the pandemic. We know a lot has happened in the past few months but don’t forget that the Facebook data privacy scandal is only a couple of years old.
What the pandemic ended up doing was throw even more fuel to the fire. Why? Because people were willing to give up privacy in order to order to battle the virus. By allowing the governing bodies to access phones and personal medical records in order to identify and isolate infected patients, society was willing to give away information in the name of health. In some cases, the relinquishing of power and privacy was jaw-dropping.
In Russia, an app monitoring citizens who have tested positive for Covid-19, wanted access to calls, location, camera, storage, network information and other data to check they do not leave their home while they are infected. Invasive? What about Taiwan where Milo Hsieh opened the door to police officers to check up on him, 45 minutes after his phone died of battery? And if any of these two examples is not enough to ruffle your feathers, maybe the example of Israel will do it. What are we referring to? Nothing much. Merely the fact that controversial Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group proposed a solution that would use mobile phone data to monitor and predict the spread of the coronavirus.
With all that in mind, it’s of paramount importance to investigate how we can balance life, safety and privacy after the pandemic.
Renegotiation The Relationship Between State & People
This relationship has been relatively steady for hundreds of years but every now and then comes an incident that begs for its revision. This event is the pandemic and it seems that in order to get any resemblance of an answer as to what is the best way to balance such a complex issue, our best bet is granular analysis and evidence.
In a recent CNBC interview, Lawrence Gostin, a professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown Law said the following: “The best way to balance public health with civil liberties is with evidence. It all begins with science but it also requires proportionate responses that are not arbitrary or draconian,” he explained. “And we need to maintain the public’s trust.”
Gostin goes on to provide the type of questions we should be asking in order to find the answer we’re looking for:
- Is there scientific evidence that an individual poses a significant risk?
- Is the intervention the least restrictive possible to achieve the public health goal?
- Are the measures used likely to gain the public’s support and confidence?
- Does the person have access to due process to challenge the intervention?
- Is the measure arbitrary or discriminatory?
If anything can be deduced from these statements, is that trust and consent are two major factors in this new relationship between people and state. How can that be achieved?
Decentralisation Might Just Be The Solution
The debate about handling the coronavirus privacy and security issues has two sides: On the one side you find the PEPP-PT (Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing) team of experts which uses a more traditional, centralised approach to dealing with data. On the other side you have DP-3T, a group of privacy-minded academics that has developed an entirely decentralised solution to coronavirus contact-tracing, not involving governments’ centralised databases in the equation.
The point of contention between these two schools of thought is clear but what has become clearer over the past couple of months is which approach seems to be the future of balancing life and privacy once again – decentralisation. Firstly, let’s start by the widespread criticism on the PEPP-PT for withholding any source code or in-depth technological specs of their project. This approach sparked an uproar in the privacy community and gave the decentralized proposal a major push.
To pour even fuel to the fire, PEPP-PT released the implementation plan and architecture of its technology by the German government. DP-3T was quick to release their own paper, essentially explaining the difference in approach, and the loopholes that make PEPP-PT susceptible to becoming a surveillance tool.
If that wasn’t enough to tilt the scale in favour of decentralisation, Apple and Google joining forces in creating a decentralised app against the coronavirus, might just have been the icing on the cake. When two, if not the two, biggest tech giants on the planets decide to follow this line of technology, that should tell us something.
Going back to the end of the previous section, trust and consent are the two pillars of rebuilding the relationship between people and state and bring about the much needed balance between data privacy and health safety. With that in mind, decentralization technology is exactly what the doctor ordered. It provides the solution to our problem in a way that information travels and is used safely.
What will happen, remains to be seen but you can rest assured, we will be here to investigate it. Stay tuned as we will be back with more information on how this important issue plays out.