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The old axiom that one should never waste a good crisis, appears to be the driving force behind one of Big-Tech's biggest rivalries seen in Google and Apple that are now working together in an unorthodox partnership to create the ultimate privacy buster - a coronavirus tracking app.
While they insist that this partnership is for the greater good there are many experts and pundits across the political spectrum that are concerned on these two tech giants using personal data to move further than just coronavirus.
“[The extent to which] people are concerned about privacy depends on what the relative benefits are,”
says Leslie John, associate professor at Harvard Business School, whose research focuses on the psychology of privacy decision-making. “In a time when people are concerned about life and death, people may be more willing to give up information for greater health.”
“Everyone’s desperate. It’s technology utopianism; we’re looking for technology to save us,”
Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission is quoted as saying in an article in the Financial Times.
Contact Tracing has always been a controversial practice in the digital era. However, the ability for a Google-Apple partnership to exponentially shift how this tracking data is used is where the normative ethical conundrum over data privacy balloons into something far more "sinister."
One solution sees the coronavirus tracing data being left primarily on a user's phone. Of course, Big-Tech has not been satisfied by that hybrid answer to the ethical issues surrounding their proposed transition into a large surveillance company.
Given the understandable pushback by more and more people who are realizing that Big-Tech is essentially hijacking the coronavirus pandemic in order to get away with breaking privacy norms other solutions have popped up.
Australia's COVID-Safe has had a hard time competing with Google and Apple since they control the platforms that apps need to be uploaded to the phone.
Another app UseCrypt has been an up an coming star for a few years in its independent approach to privacy. With a renewed focus on privacy, UseCrypt has seen its app, about which refuses to store personal data on a centralized server, get a second look by the wider population.
At the end of the day, COVID-19 has been far more about who is taking advantage of the general population's fear than it has been about stopping the spread of an out of control pandemic. Governments, technology giants, and pharma companies hoping to make a buck on a potentially poorly and rushed vaccine have exacerbated the situation while frontline health workers have put their lives at risk to save countless people.
While its true that Big Tech may think it is being altruistic (although that is doubtful) all well meaning plans have a big chance of devolving into something far more sinister than what was originally envisioned.
We live in a strange world and moment in history. Fear has transformed our sensibilities and drawn us to give up on protecting our own personal freedoms. While contact tracing might seem harmless and necessary, it also may be the very door which subtly moves society into an Orwellian universe we have long feared.