Will Privacy Survive COVID-19?

During times of national emergency, drastic measures can be implemented within the blink of an eye. A lockdown can be established within 24hrs. Two weeks ago feels like two years, yet some of us still do not see or feel the need to abide by the rules our government has set.

The Dutch government urges its citizens to stay at home, work from home and keep at least 1,5 meters of distance when leaving the house, and only leave if necessary. Most people follow these guidelines but as the Dutch can be stubborn, or the west, a part of our society chooses to ignore these measures. The reason that we can ignore these measures is that we have been privileged, we’ve been spoiled, we had the freedom to not do what we’ve been told. Now the government has sharpened the measures; fines can be given if you are gathering with more than three individuals (that are not forming a household). The next possible step, when measures are ignored, could be advanced technological surveillance methods.

Can citizens make their own decisions or do we need totalitarian forces to stop the spread of the virus?

When societies face a threat, quick solutions are needed. China has set a perfect example of how to implement and execute draconian measures. A couple of weeks ago this was unthinkable in what we call the “free west”. Still, comparisons can be drawn, especially if people choose to not follow government restrictions, something that you’d better not try to do in a country like China. We should ask ourselves; do we need stricter rules to stop the spread of Covid-19 amongst us, or are we able, as a society, to stop this spread by following the government’s measures. By ignoring the government’s rules we pave the way for an authoritarian society; enforcing strict obedience at the expense of personal freedom.

These quick solutions, to limit the spread of the virus, can be vast. In a normal situation, these laws would take years to be implemented. But due to the current health crisis, the government can justify high-tech surveillance methods and means to enforce strict measures. While we’re all integrated into a parallel digital world, it has become considerably easy to monitor the health of individuals, but besides that; it is also relatively uncomplicated to monitor if these individuals are following the government’s regulations.

In specific parts of Europe, drones are now deployed to direct you towards your home (with a speaker) or to check if specific public spaces are crowded. There is also the possibility to use infrared cameras to check the body temperature of individuals - another indication that we’re undergoing a dystopic makeover. The Dutch police force is investigating the possibilities of drones with as well. In Germany, cell phone location data is used to reveal general trends about where and when people are congregating and risk spreading infection. 1

What are the possible scenarios?

According to Yuval Noah Harari, there are two scenarios; one in which we as a society battle the virus. The other is more fearsome for us in the ‘Free West’, where the government will force us to stay home and track us down if we’re not. 2 In Post 9/11 America (and their highly effective war on terrorism) we’ve all seen how that turned out; thanks to Edward Snowden we know that the National Security Agency is actively gathering information from almost every individual in the United States. During the Covid-19 crisis, a similar scenario can happen here; we casually leave a data trail behind that can be used to profile and control us.

The Dutch government is currently investigating the possibilities of using anonymised data to stop the spread of the virus. The three biggest mobile phone providers (KPN, Vodafone & T-Mobile) are willing to hand over anonymised data to stop the spread of the virus. There is doubt if this data will help, especially if there is already a ‘smart-lockdown’. 3

Besides that; there’s criticism about to which extent anonymised data is actually anonymous. First of all, it is very difficult to anonymise data, especially if the government has a data set, which in combination with anonymised data can still expose individuals. The current techniques that are used to anonymise data are not capable of successfully hiding individuals. Researchers from two universities in Europe have published a method they say is able to correctly re-identify 99.98% of individuals in anonymized data sets with just 15 demographic attributes. 4

This is the time to think about how the world should be after COVID-19. Do we need strong governmental institutions to monitor our abidance to laws and regulations? Or can we be strong as a society and make sure that we keep that bit of distance? By doing this we will preserve the distance that we need between the government and the public.

While the COVID-19 virus is temporary, a decline in privacy is not. If we are still not able to see the seriousness of this crisis we shouldn’t be surprised if we wake up in a post-1984 era. We should have faith in science, we should trust our government and we have to believe in one another.