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We Should Have a Democratic Debate About Trade-Offs Between Public Safety and Privacy

Locked down, smartphones are giving many of us some comfort and connection now. But the hardware and software that make our phones so indispensable are also tracking us twenty-four hours a day. This crisis will only open the door to more privacy intrusions in the name of public health.

Two people sitting on a bench wearing protective masks using their phones as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 27, 2020 in New York City. Cindy Ord / Getty

Crises have an illuminating quality. They shine a light on our relationships with each other and our communities, with our employers and our elected officials — and also with technology. As COVID-19 has driven us indoors we have responded by reaching out through our digital devices.

When the coronavirus gripped China in February, people in the country downloaded 222 million apps on their phones. When public schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts closed their doors in mid-March, students were sent home with Chromebooks to learn virtually. As the virus spreads to nearly every continent billions of people are receiving information, updates, and directives on their pocket computers. In a perverse sort of way, the coronavirus is highlighting how integral our digital connections are to modern life.

In revealing the depth of our digital connection, however, the current crisis also highlights a growing ambivalence toward our smartphone society. We’re happy to use social media with friends as we hunker down and are eager to keep abreast of news. But we’re uneasy about how our smartphones have been quickly repurposed by governments to track and surveil us in the effort to beat the virus.

The White House, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), has begun tracking Americans’ smartphones to see where they are going during the outbreak. Recently, when data analysts saw large numbers of people congregating in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, they alerted the authorities. The UK government has sent nationwide text messages reminding citizens to stay at home, and in British Columbia the Ministry of Health has created a new app to provide self-check tools and guides on handwashing. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has brushed off the seriousness of COVID-19, but favela residents have received WhatsApp messages from local crime bosses warning them to stay inside.

Other countries have adopted more intrusive measures. Israel has tapped its secret service to log the movements of everyone who has tested positive for coronavirus. Poland is using smartphones to enforce self-quarantines — those isolating at home are required to send a selfie from home within twenty minutes of receiving a prompt from government officials or risk the police showing up at the door. In South Korea, individuals with coronavirus have seen their personal information made public, so others could determine whether they had been in proximity to them.

In the rush to use our smartphones to help quell the coronavirus governments have partnered closely with tech companies. The e-commerce giant Alibaba developed a bespoke tracking system for the Chinese government called the Alipay Health Code which was implemented around the country. People in China signed in using Alipay, a popular digital wallet, and were assigned a health color code (green, yellow, or red) on their smartphones that determined where they were allowed to go, including whether they were permitted to use public transportation, enter businesses, or return to work.

US tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Amazon, data-mining company Palantir, and Clearview AI, a controversial facial-recognition company, are working in conjunction with the White House, the CDC, and the National Institutes of Health to model the virus outbreak and to develop ways to monitor people who have become infected with COVID-19. Apple and Google have also cracked down on coronavirus apps in their play stores, deleting informational apps except those provided by recognized health organizations or government agencies.

There is broad agreement that governments should use the resources available to them, digital or otherwise, to combat a disease that has already infected nearly two million people worldwide, and much of what countries are doing on the digital front makes sense. But some of the ways governments and companies are using our smartphones and other types of surveillance to track and control individual behavior raise uncomfortable questions about the trade-offs at play in the current crisis. As technology ethicist David Ryan Polgar told Mic, “Our efforts to track down those with COVID-19 are running headfirst into delicate issues around privacy.”

Poland’s selfie request notifies the police after just twenty minutes of nonresponse. What if you were taking a nap and missed the prompt?  Iranian officials released a coronavirus app that promised to let users know whether they were likely to have coronavirus, but instead began tracking users’ real-time location details. In China, users were assigned a color code determining whether they could leave their home but weren’t told why they were coded red or green or how they could challenge their status. When South Korean authorities publicized the movements of individuals infected with coronavirus public shaming and personal threats resulted.

In the United States, tech companies are helping the government model and track the virus, but some of these companies have a terrible track record regarding privacy. Palantir is funded by the Central Intelligence Agency and according to Sam Biddle at the Intercept “has helped expand and accelerate the NSA’s global spy network.” Revelations about the business practices of Clearview AI — a secretive facial-recognition startup that counts hundreds of law enforcement agencies as its clients — have caused alarm and calls to ban the practice of facial recognition by computer scientists.

In this crisis privacy is being jettisoned for the greater good. Is the trade-off worth it? Some argue for a qualified “yes,” for the simple reason that smartphone surveillance has been a key strategy in countries that seem to have gotten a handle on the virus. Wolfie Christl, a privacy activist and researcher, told the Wall Street Journal that “in the light of the emerging disaster, it may be appropriate to make use of aggregate analytics based on consumer data in some cases, even if data is being gathered secretly or illegally by companies.”

But what about after the crisis? Data ethicists and digital rights advocates are concerned that the privacy-encroaching measures enacted to help quell the outbreak will remain in place after the coronavirus threat has receded.

Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the Financial Times that we can’t assume that temporary measures, such as biometric surveillance, will go away after the emergency is over. “Temporary measures,” he contended, “have a nasty habit of outlasting emergencies, especially as there is always a new emergency lurking on the horizon.” Adam Schwartz, a senior lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, echoed this fear in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: “We understand that given we are in this crisis, that some temporary adjustment of our digital liberties may be necessary, however it’s really important that those adjustments be temporary.” Amnesty International recently released a joint statement with more than a hundred civil society groups warning governments not to use the pandemic “as a cover to usher in a new era of greatly expanded systems of invasive digital surveillance.”

The fear that bespoke surveillance developed to combat the coronavirus may linger is a legitimate one. We should keep a close tally on what surveillance measures, both voluntary and involuntary, have been implemented during the crisis so that when the smoke clears, we can gauge how privacy might have been altered.

But it is also important not to overstate the distinction between “now” and “before.” To get an accurate sense of the shifting privacy landscape, it is important to recognize that both the good things, and the bad things, that we’re getting from our smartphones during this crisis are possible only because we’ve already developed a deep and complex relationship with digital technology — a relationship that is grounded in surveillance.

The hardware and software that make our phones so indispensable are already tracking us twenty-four hours a day every day. For example, the coronavirus apps that use geolocation data to determine whether individuals are practicing social distancing or staying inside their quarantine zone are only possible because our phones are designed to provide precise geolocation data — data that companies like Google currently harvest and store forever.

If you’re carrying your phone Google can tell precisely where you are at all times. Tap your Maps app, and Google will take a snapshot of where you were when you opened it. Any time you do a search it not only stores the contents of the search query but also where you were when you made a query. Indeed, researchers at Princeton confirmed that even if you used Google’s “privacy tools” on both Android and iPhones to ask Google not to track your location, it did so anyway.

More than this, the constellation of norms and behaviors that facilitate a ready willingness to snap a selfie for facial recognition or to use an app to track and report potential signs of illness were developed long before the coronavirus. We use Face ID to unlock our phones, post selfies on Instagram, and get tagged on Facebook using the social media giant’s cutting-edge facial-recognition capabilities. We self-monitor with period and sleep trackers, meditation apps and biorhythm calculators.

In this crisis governments and companies are relying on these habits and expectations, adapting our existing relationships with our smartphones to serve the end of quelling the viral outbreak. Indeed, the ease with which these habits and expectations have become repurposed is evidence of how ingrained they’ve become as smartphones have become ubiquitous over the past decade.

This ease should give us pause. The nineteenth-century historian Charles Francis Adams Jr said of the newly omnipresent railroads, “Whatever constantly enters into the daily life soon becomes an unnoticed part of it.” This crisis is causing us to sit up and notice our relationship to our digital devices. It is highlighting how when we pick up our smartphones, our taps and swipes engage not only a system of hardware and software, but also something much bigger — a set of institutions, relationships, and networks that have come to define modern society.

The coronavirus has been a shock to the system, exposing the divides and frailties that lurk beneath the surface of society. A period of reckoning after we’ve managed to beat this thing is unavoidable; demands to address these weaknesses will be made. We would be wise to include a demand about privacy. A sustained conversation about surveillance, and the trade-offs between public safety and privacy, is long overdue.