How COVID-19 Challenged Our Views on Privacy

“We do it because we can” has shifted to “the fact that we can, does not mean that we should.” This paradigm shifting view is a massive U-turn from the traditional tech practices that have dominated the space for decades. #COVID19 #ContactTracing #dp3t

For the past twenty years, many in tech believed that we must sacrifice privacy for security. This deafening tune we’ve heard since 9/11 has been aided by the tech sector, focused primarily on growth and profit and not social impact or responsibility. 

In early March, when the COVID-19 first took hold of Europe, predictable positions for less privacy were catapulted back into our feverish discourse, “we’ll need to sacrifice privacy to defeat the virus,” and “there is a trade-off between health and privacy, and health must come first.”

This horrible pandemic provided the case and ammunition to uphold another reason for less privacy and technology regulation. It was also reinforced by Asia as they conquered COVID-19 through a combination of curtailing fundamental rights and freedoms and increasing the use of technology to monitor everyday movements and viral hotspots. 

As Europe prepared itself for lock-down, countries began to explore how to use technology in the fight against the virus: GPS surveillance, symptoms and temperature-tracking, immunity QR codes, digital pandemic IDs, contact tracing. In the name of fighting this insidious pandemic, it seemed as if Big Brother reappeared.  

However, two surprising factors changed the conversation. 

  1. The most hyped technologies: blockchain, artificial intelligence, and machine learning couldn’t provide, nor credibly claim to deliver a silver bullet against the pandemic left many in a state of confusion. 
  2. EU-based developers and engineers committed to privacy found their voice and asserted that it was possible to imagine new tech solutions to address the pandemic without risking people’s privacy. 

Creating Options in Technology

With an eye on creating technology to solve a clearly defined problem while minimizing the use of personal data, the urgency of privacy galvanized the developers and engineers to create what is now known as Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing or DP3T

DP-3T is an open-source protocol for Bluetooth-based tracking, an approach to contact tracing based on privacy-preserving methods(a phone’s contact logs are only stored locally) and eliminates any possibility of misuse by governments or any other bad actors by minimising personal data collection. 

The use of the DP3T protocol, thus, required countries and data operators to effectively abandon any intention to use the pandemic to surveil the population or use their personal data in any way other than to alert them of a potential exposure risk. The DP3T team also insisted on publishing the code for their protocol, and urged any country claiming to have a better solution to release it to be scrutinised by the community.

DP3T protocol meant countries seeking technology solutions to fight COVID19 had two options:

  1. Use GPS-based apps and/or centralised servers with personal data, or
  2. Go for decentralised solutions where citizens were in control of their data and their health.

 

It is very unusual to have choices when it comes to technology. Sure, there may be different providers, different interfaces, but the backbone of most tech around us is very similar, and based on data extractivism, which creates huge incentives to disregard privacy. 

The Silicon Valley model has put so much value on personal data that most technologies see users as products, not clients. The current technology market sees more value in collecting personal data than in solving problems, and so we are surrounded by solutions that create false problems so we agree to give up our valuable personal data.

DP3T changed this. 

By stating that proximity tracing was solely developed as an early risk detection and warning system, the protocol changed the conversation and showed there was another way to look at technology. 

In the process, DP3T found unlikely allies in the corporate world: Google and Apple. The two tech giants have recently taken important steps in an effort to regain the trust of their customers, and saw the pandemic as an opportunity to help promote state-led proximity-tracing apps. 

But not all actors have been comfortable giving up the possibility to gather massive amounts of health data amidst a pandemic. Some governments and many tech actors found it difficult to not use and abuse data. The conversation, “we do it because we can” has shifted to “the fact that we can, does not mean that we should.” This paradigm shifting view is a massive U-turn from the traditional technological practices that have dominated the space for decades. 

Luckily, the efforts led by the European Union to put forth a new paradigm based on privacy, transparency and ethics have also meant that DP3T has found allies in high places, and today a privacy-enhancing proximity tracing protocol is the most exciting technological innovation to emerge in a long time, one of the keys to avoiding a second lock-down, and will likely become the global standard.

The battle between tech centralisation and descentralisation has opened the door to a new technological world. One where technology ceases to be tantamount to the erosion of human rights and becomes a tool to better solve societal problems.

After COVID-19 our tech context is, paradoxically, healthier than it was before the pandemic. 

Let’s keep it that way.

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