Dan Arel is a journalist, author, and privacy advocate. He's also the owner of ThinkPrivacy.ch
As the COVID-19 pandemic goes on, life for some around the world is beginning to look a little more like it did before, except with some more distancing, and more people wearing masks. What doesn’t look the same, is how technology is being used to monitor and track cases, infection rates, and outbreaks.
While it’s hard to argue against using any technology to control such a deadly worldwide outbreak, we should also be aware of laws and programs that will erode away individual privacy rights along the way. While safety and keeping the virus under control should be a top priority, so should holding onto privacy rights.
In China, where the virus first became a pandemic, we have seen incredibly invasive privacy rights that are already in place. Throughout China, you will find surveillance cameras that utilize facial recognition technology, as well as phone scanners. They even have billboard-size screens that post the faces of jaywalkers, those accused of other crimes, and even those who have not paid their debts. With this technology, the Chinese government can monitor your travel, hotel stays, car travel, and with the phone scanners and other internet tracking technologies, they can even monitor all of your communications.
Now, under the guise of monitoring the spread of COVID-19, China has implemented further policies that invade the privacy rights of its citizens.
Residents are required to report their family temperatures to their building managers daily, oftentimes on apps like WeChat in which you share with everyone in the building. Others have their travel history monitored by the government and scanning individual QR codes if you enter restaurants and businesses so that if an outbreak occurs, you can be contacted.
While China already has some of the most invasive privacy laws on the planet, they are not alone and other countries, such as the UK utilize QR scanning. Yet, we know governments have plenty of other methods for tracking our movement, and internet usage to learn about us what they please if we don’t take measures to protect our own privacy.
Without a QR code, the GPS location on my phone can tell someone where I have been, or what I was to search the internet on a non-private search engine looking up symptoms of COVID-19.
Worse still is that once we give up privacy rights in the name of safety, we never get it back. Zhao Mingfeng, an editor from Beijing told MarketWatch that while the Chinese government never wanted a pandemic like this on their hands,
“But I’m sure they welcome the excuse to use more surveillance tools.”
This is not only true of China, but the rest of the world as well. Once you hand over rights, they don’t come back to you, and you must continue to protect your own privacy. Using a privacy respecting search engine such as Startpage is an important start. Using a VPN and turning off your GPS when you don’t need it are other steps you can take.
Yet, before we get there, we must ensure we don’t hand over our privacy rights. Get involved with campaigns with organizations such as EFF who are working on mounting opposition to such invasive privacy degrading laws and actions in the US and around the world.
Finally, use common sense. In the midst of a pandemic, we are already making decisions every day about where we need to go versus where we want to go. You decide if it’s safe to travel from place to place or who we have in-person contact with. Take that same thought with your privacy. Tech companies are going to release apps to help with contact tracing, and you need to understand their privacy policies and who has access to that data. If you’re asked to share info about your health, think about who you are sharing it with, and why?
When in doubt, don’t download or install it. When in doubt, don’t share or give access to your data, and when in doubt, think privacy first.
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