Covid-19, Privacy And The Use Of Technology

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Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures — or do they?

We’re in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which the world hasn’t seen in a century, exacerbated by our ease of mobility by land, air and sea. However, things are different because we’re advanced technologically. So how do we use the tools and resources we have without screwing things up for the inevitable next pandemic? We focus on privacy.

We’ve seen examples of how the swift use of technology can help stop the spread of the pandemic. In Singapore, cellphones were turned into virtual ankle bracelets that proved very effective. In Western culture, our appetite for these types of approaches is much more muted (and rightfully so) because the ends don’t always justify the means — especially if it means a new regime of tracking, surveillance and reduced privacy.

The Covid-19 pandemic is something we can expect to be talking about in 2022. It’s highly unlikely we’ll have nearly 8 billion people vaccinated before then, we’re hoping for a 60% effectiveness or better for a vaccine. And in the U.S., anti-vaccine sentiment could be 35%, so we may only end up with 75 million of our 330 million people effectively vaccinated. We’re in for the long haul. The risk is that we give up privacy and civil liberties today to solve a problem that could be with us for another two years, and then the question remains: When do we get our privacy and civil liberties back?

Many of us are asking whether we should be allowing our location information to be tracked as well as downloading apps onto our phones and opting in to provide other information. Let me give you the lawyer’s response: It depends.

Privacy and the fear of having it invaded can hurt the adoption of technologies that can be used to help us reduce the spread of contagions such as Covid-19, but they’re also paving the future for the technologies of the next pandemic. If mobile app contact tracing is rolled out in a way that undermines public confidence in its use today, it can reduce the number of tools in our arsenal to combat this virus — and more importantly, it can eliminate the viability of using this tool in the next pandemic, which may be deadlier and/or even more infectious than our current contagion.

However, there are options. We can limit the use of these technologies to the appropriate environments, such as schools, dorms, offices and event venues where lots of people congregate around one another for long periods of time. Technologies that are physically limited to the spaces and the information they access, and maybe most importantly don’t require a download to your phone, could be the most critical in helping the public feel comfortable in using technology to help fight the spread of Covid-19. As we’re learning from the news of the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina reopening and ultimately shuttering their campuses in the same week, the ability to contain the spread of the virus is limited by the number of people manually tracing the spread.

At all times, we need to ask ourselves what we are giving up, whether we should be giving it up and who can protect and regulate the space and our rights. Sadly, I believe a lack of action by the federal government has left us in no man’s land with little to protect us as consumers by way of data privacy, period. It’s up to us to ask the hard questions to protect our privacy as well as ourselves from contagions today and beyond.

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