In a public health emergency that relies on people keeping an anti-social distance from each other to avoid spreading a highly contagious virus for which humans have no pre-existing immunity governments around the world have been quick to look to technology companies for help.
Background tracking is, after all, what many Internet giants’ ad-targeting business models rely on. While, in the US, telcos were recently exposed sharing highly granular location data for commercial ends.
Some of these privacy-hostile practices face ongoing challenges under existing data protection laws in Europe — and/or have at least attracted regulator attention in the US, which lacks a comprehensive digital privacy framework — but a pandemic is clearly an exceptional circumstance. So we’re seeing governments turn to the tech sector for help.
US president Donald Trump was reported last week to have summoned a number of tech companies to the White House to discuss how mobile location data could be used for tracking citizens.
In the UK the government has also been reported to be in discussions with telcos about mapping mobile users’ movements during the crisis — though not at an individual level. It was reported to have held an early meeting with tech companies to ask what resources they could contribute to the fight against COVID-19.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italy — which remains the European nation worst hit by the virus — has reportedly sought anonymized data from Facebook and local telcos that aggregates users’ movement to help with contact tracing or other forms of monitoring.
While there are clear public health imperatives to ensure populations are following instructions to reduce social contact, the prospect of Western democracies making like China and actively monitoring citizens’ movements raises uneasy questions about the long term impact of such measures on civil liberties.
Plus, if governments seek to expand state surveillance powers by directly leaning on the private sector to keep tabs on citizens it risks cementing a commercial exploitation of privacy — at a time when there’s been substantial push-back over the background profiling of web users for behavioral ads.
“Unprecedented levels of surveillance, data exploitation, and misinformation are being tested across the world,” warns civil rights campaign group Privacy International, which is tracking what it dubs the “extraordinary measures” being taken during the pandemic.
A couple of examples include telcos in Israel sharing location data with state agencies for COVID-19 contact tracing and the UK government tabling emergency legislation that relaxes the rules around intercept warrants.
“Many of those measures are based on extraordinary powers, only to be used temporarily in emergencies. Others use exemptions in data protection laws to share data. Some may be effective and based on advice from epidemiologists, others will not be. But all of them must be temporary, necessary, and proportionate,” it adds. “It is essential to keep track of them. When the pandemic is over, such extraordinary measures must be put to an end and held to account.”