Foreign tourists queue at a health control counter at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok as Thailand monitors the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: AFP / Bangkok Post / Pornprom Satrabhaya

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The Covid-19 saga is a consequence of the turbulence of the globalization process and the interconnectivity of human economic activity. Indeed, this story that is rocking the globe is having a variegated effect on national governments – but at the same time, the response might create a dilemma all countries will have to face. 

In one sense, the pandemic is a test for all governments: a test for the resiliency of public health systems, the effectiveness of fiscal and administrative action, and the ability of communities to come together to help those in need and take preventive measures to stop the spread of the disease.  

One common aspect among the various national responses concerns smartphones and personal data. Amid the crisis, governments have utilized the big-data ecosystem to fight against Covid-19. These tools include: AI-driven predictive models that help track and anticipate the spread of the virus through geo-locational data; supply-chain management practices centered on data analytics that coordinate supply and demand from the assembly line to the consumer; and algorithms that help prepare medical staff and hospital systems for increased patient volume.  

Data, data, data …

For example, the algorithms used in China not only approximated the chances that a certain neighborhood or individual would be infected, but also ensured that high-risk areas were supplied with needed tests and equipment at the height of the outbreak. Chinese tech giants Alibaba and Tencent went further and introduced health code systems within their platforms that assigned a color code – red, yellow or green – to users that indicated whether they needed to be quarantined for two weeks, for seven days, or could move freely. A person needed this code to enter public places such as metro stations, malls, and residential and non-residential buildings. 

In another instance, South Korea extensively tracked and tested people, allowing government authorities to create a centralized map that was later made available to the public, notifying users when they came as close as 100 meters to a location previously visited by a person carrying the virus. The data involved in this notification process included the infected person’s age and gender, movement data re-created from surveillance cameras, and credit-card transactions used in smart-city technology systems. 

Hong Kong is yet another example of a government that used technology to stop the virus. The city required arriving passengers to wear a wristband containing GPS (Global Positioning System) chips for a two-week self-quarantine period. Similarly, in Thailand, air passengers arriving from “high-risk” countries had to install a mandatory smartphone application that could track their location and notify Thai authorities if the person had violated movement restrictions.

Privacy, cybersecurity concerns

Despite decreased levels of new Covid-19 cases in these countries and public health successes, the use of this technology on a mass scale raises several privacy, legal and cybersecurity challenges that warrant attention. 

Some apps have disclosed extremely detailed data of people during the crisis, exposing their identity and sensitive personal information putting them at great risk of harm. While surveillance technology that tracks people’s movements has created opportunities in the public health crisis, a failure in the security of these systems could cause catastrophic harm, especially if governments are distracted and fail to take adequate measures.  

The apps that collect user data on a mass scale and decide whether the person can freely move may result in arbitrary decisions. Moreover, the epidemic may give governments the ability to put pressure on tech companies to collect mass quantities of personal information from citizens. Such sharing of sensitive information without accountability mechanisms is prone to cyberattacks with harmful consequences, such as identity theft and fraud.  

Privacy revisited

Growing concern regarding the intersection of human rights and technology has produced a plethora of privacy frameworks and an emerging global discourse that strikes at the heart of how big tech is globalizing big surveillance in the age of artificial intelligence (AI).  

However, the rapid outbreak of Covid-19 may change the narrative around privacy even in Western democracies. European countries sensitive to the importance of data privacy, such as Belgium, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, have used geo-locational data to map the spread of Covid-19. Despite strong data-privacy legislation in European Union countries, there is no guarantee that this data won’t be used for other purposes. 

In the United States, two major tech firms, Google and Facebook, are working on projects to analyze the movement of millions of mobile-phone users to model the spread of the virus. These efforts also seek to measure how effective social distancing and other suppression techniques have been. 

Indeed, amid a crisis where the health and safety of the public are at stake, the narrative around data privacy is changing as governments succeed and flounder in their ability to effectively mobilize vast networks of data in order to mitigate against the uncertainty.  Unlike the virus, intrusive practices and surveillance techniques may not go away but create a new paradigm for privacy. Within a few days this novel situation may roll back institutional values that have been crystalized over decades. 

With no oversight, transparency and due process these practices could establish a precedent on privacy intrusion unseen before, where massive amounts of personal data in such areas as movement, health and personal relationships will be stored in the hands of authorities indefinitely. The call of necessity in the name of public health may become the perfect linchpin for the inadvertent creation of police states.

This is not to say that governments should not be using big data to minimize the spread of Covid-19 or that privacy outweighs public health at large. But as we move forward from the global crisis, we must approach surveillance with caution. While the Covid-19 pandemic has been an earth-shattering event, the exception should not become the rule. 

When people’s health on a such massive scale is at stake, this dilemma is hard to solve, but a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin should remind us that people willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both. 

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Olena Mykhalchenko

Olena Mykhalchenko is a Fulbright and Edmund S Muskie Scholar, focusing on the intersection of artificial intelligence and human rights, the future of work in the gig economy, and the social impact of Industry 4.0. Currently she is a consultant at Datamize, advising on data privacy and algorithmic ethics.