For most of the past two decades, lack of privacy and corporate surveillance have been causes for concern for the public. As artificial intelligence and data analysis techniques have improved, so too have the methods that use them for generating unique and novel insights into our lives. Companies including Google and Facebook have had huge success in turning data from our personal lives into profits and we have been slow to realise that the cost of convenience is our lives being packaged up and sold to advertisers, released to governments, lost to hackers or shared with intelligence companies with unclear agendas. Many do not realise the implications of giving away the kind of information these organisations collect, or even understand what is being collected or how it is being used. Nevertheless, these deep insights into our lives are constantly being harvested and are now so ingrained in our technological infrastructure that they are difficult to avoid. The creep into our lives has been relatively slow and difficult to perceive thus far.
Now, during the global crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, personal data is being used more and more to help track and trace vectors of infection. South Korea made headlines around the world for their intensive digital surveillance programme that was shown to be effective in this goal. Location and identification tracking are so precise that users of the application were warned if an infected person was within 100 metres of them. Meanwhile, following on from this success other countries have been scrambling to create their own programmes. Technologies deployed include visual surveillance drones, location tracking applications, QR codes as passes and data analysis systems that rate and reveal the likelihood of someone having the virus. Other countries now following this example include the UK, Russia, the US, India and Israel.
Technology companies and governments have been placed in a unique position where they can implement such wide-ranging surveillance measures in the interests of public health without very much of the usual scrutiny. While it is a good opportunity to trial some public health measures and showcase technology that may be useful in other areas, it does raise larger questions about when our data is not ours any more and what can and cannot be done concerning our data without our permission.
It is also likely that companies will follow suit and increase surveillance on their employees. It is important to remember that while you may be working from home, you are most likely working on a computer that belongs to your company and not to you. That means that the programs on it are likely to be under the company’s control and that they can install a whole range of surveillance software to ensure that employees are actually working from home. For many companies this stop-gap distrustful solution will likely remain in place once the pandemic has passed.
As ever, the issue with desperate times and desperate measures is not necessarily that the measures are unwarranted. The worry is that things will never go back and that enhanced surveillance, whether from the government, technology companies or our workplace will be the new normal even after the crisis has passed. This need not provide an opportunity for us to give up privacy but can be an important catalyst for new ways of doing things. We should be ensuring that all organisations involved in collecting, analysing and releasing our data are doing so with regard to privacy and the current crisis should be used to provide a framework for how data is managed going forward.