COVID-19 and its Impact on the Future of Privacy and Tech

Aug 13, 2020 by BBB National Programs

As political leaders around the world struggle to address the crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s of little surprise they are turning to new technologies to stop the spread. The efficacy of those technologies is being tested every day, and winners and losers are already being identified. While all of us hope the crisis will be abated, some of us fear the long-term privacy implications that are just now rising to the surface of the technology solutions that stick. 

The effects of COVID-19 and efforts to implement contact tracing will shape the intertwined destinies of technology and society. Businesses will assess their duties to employees as they balance the interests of protecting employee privacy and preventing the spread of the virus. Steps the large platforms--- such as Google, Apple, and Facebook – take today with Bluetooth LE and location data will become much more than footprints in the sand, as companies will feel the pressure from regulators and shareholders to employ the technologies used to combat coronavirus in other areas.  

In the U.S., federal agencies and state governments will consider other public use cases for location data that comport with existing statutory frameworks and the fourth amendment. Data collected and stored in the name of contact tracing will tempt law enforcement and intelligence agencies in pursuit of their missions. And efforts that companies take to halt the spread of coronavirus misinformation will set immutable precedents for the larger policy debate of content moderation.  


The future of location data 

For instance, as governments consider the use of location data for contact tracing, other possibilities for the use of such data for public health and safety - and other purposes – may emerge. For example, civil authorities might be motivated to use location data related to foot traffic as a gauge of economic activity. Health authorities and law enforcement agencies may become more comfortable using geofences for purposes of enforcing quarantines or shelter-in-place orders not just for viruses, but also for natural disaster relief and terrorist attacks. 

Further, as the world observes the effect of coronavirus lockdowns on the global carbon footprint, location data could be used to measure environmental impact or for enforcing environmental policy. And while location data has been used for political purposes in recent election cycles, this type of data might be further employed to identify the movement of protestors or ensure voters are following social distancing guidelines. Finally, the use of location data in the area of pretrial criminal justice might expand. 


The new workplace  

In the workplace, questions about implementing contact tracing and social distancing will arise as employees return to the office. Some companies are experimenting with wearables or smart devices that ring or buzz when employees get too close to one another. Others are considering thermal sensors to detect employee fevers and cameras equipped with machine learning algorithms to analyze proximity between employees.  

These quite plausible scenarios ultimately beg the question: Will such technologies become normalized in the workplace after the pandemic subsides? 


The rise of wearables and biosecurity culture 

Beyond the workplace, society may see new uses for wearables to ensure collective public health. Fitness trackers, smart watches, and sleep tracking devices may be used to gauge relative health in order to predict if someone is at risk for a disease or other health conditions. These types of technologies might become an early warning system for health problems beyond the coronavirus. At first glance, we may think “all good,” but second thoughts on privacy will linger.  


Certificates of immunity 

As testing for COVID-19 becomes more available and knowledge about the disease increases, the question of whether governments will create “certificates of immunity” has entered the public discourse. If certificates demonstrating a status of immunity become part of the public health strategy for tracing the spread of the disease, society may consider other use cases for such a status. Certificates of immunity, when paired with other types of data, could be used for insurance eligibility purposes, travel, or access to goods and services, again raising serious privacy questions.  


The alchemy of contact tracing data 

For public health authorities that deploy centralized contact tracing solutions, contact data will be stored on servers controlled by a government and possibly managed by a private company, such as Amazon’s cloud service AWS. In the international context, legal questions will inevitably arise regarding the transfer and storage of contact data pursuant to the United States CLOUD Act or any other mutual legal assistance treaty. Within the United States, questions will arise regarding how long data collected from contact tracing apps should be stored prior to deletion, and whether any additional statutory protections will be extended to contact tracing data to ensure it’s not accessed for any other purpose.  


Platform paternalism 

In the word of tech today, the government has already experienced policy collisions with the large platforms in the areas of encryption, foreign propaganda, surveillance, platform bias, and many other areas. Every day, citizens, regulators and law enforcement entities expect the platforms to use their commercial power and access to users in ways that are not only legally compliant but meet amorphous standards for social and political responsibility.  

Platforms are expected to be adjudicators of scientific truth, anti-foreign and domestic propaganda warriors, suicide prevention counselors, deputies in the battle against sex abuse content, arbiters of political neutrality, protectors of consumer privacy, and stewards of the public health all at once. As platforms assume more power as a result of their technologies being used to fight COVID-19, the expectation from governments that this power be harnessed for other means, will only heighten.  

For example, after Facebook implemented end-to-end encryption in its Whatsapp messaging app, members of Congress and law enforcement entities criticized the company, fearing that these steps would inhibit investigations into child sex abuse materials. If contact tracing is successfully deployed across large swaths of Apple and Google’s user bases, the question of other use cases for this technology will inevitably arise. 

Frequently, legislators argue that aggressive steps like these are necessary when there is a compelling need to protect the public from certain harms. If contact tracing technology is normalized to fight COVID-19, there is the likely possibility that these attitudes will be carried to apply to these technologies in other scenarios.  


The truth and nothing but the truth 

Recently, major social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok have taken affirmative steps to take down coronavirus misinformation. Additionally, Google removed content containing alleged misinformation regarding the coronavirus from both its YouTube platform and from personal Google drive accounts of individuals who have promoted coronavirus conspiracy theories. These actions are consistent with prior steps some platforms have taken to eliminate anti-vaccination misinformation. 

This posture invites policy questions regarding what other types of truth platforms should adjudicate and when companies should engage in robust fact checking. Content moderation at scale has always been a difficult challenge; especially when it concerns content that contains a mixture of truth, fact, and exaggeration. Once internet platforms take aggressive steps to moderate communications on subjects of public interest such as the coronavirus, they may be expected to do so for political or historical truths.  

Already, policy makers are discussing the role Facebook will play in this area once its Oversight Board, its new adjudicative body for content moderation, is up and running. This year, Twitter has faced criticism for fact checking actions it had taken with respect to the tweets from the U.S. president. Actions the platforms take to curate their platforms for public health misinformation will accelerate the need to confront these questions in other areas.  


Preparing for the post-Coronavirus future 

Even after a cure or vaccine is developed for COVID-19, the world will have to address the effects of its impact. New technologies and policy choices made to trace and halt the virus will live long after the current crisis has ended, and regulators and the marketplace must make challenging decisions about the aftermath. The time to begin that process is now. 

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