We Should Shield Our Privateness, Even Throughout Instances Of Disaster

A smartphone displays a screen from the newly released contract tracking app ‘NHS COVID-19’ in … [+] London, UK Photographer: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

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Reduced freedom can be the price we have to pay for greater security.

In a March 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center, the American public identified the spread of infectious diseases as the greatest threat to the country. For the first time, this surpassed the terrorism threat: 79 percent of Americans identified disease outbreaks as a major threat to the country, compared to 73 percent of Americans who viewed terrorism as a major threat. However, counter-terrorism measures provide an important context for examining the tradeoffs between reduced civil liberties and increased security. After major events such as terrorist attacks, public concerns about government invasion of privacy tend to decrease. For example, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California in 2015, a national poll by the Pew Research Center found that the American public was less concerned about anti-terrorism policies restricting civil liberties, the lowest since five years (to 28 percent), with twice as many people (56 percent) saying their bigger concern was that politics had not gone far enough to adequately protect the country.

Where does our data go and what is it used for? Data mining, the process of extracting trends from large amounts of data using techniques such as pattern recognition and machine learning, has been used to understand and prevent terrorist activity and fraudulent behavior, often as part of a broader knowledge discovery process. A 2002 commentary published by the New York Times listed new plans for a program within the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) to create a centralized database of citizen information that will be used for data collection for various purposes, including security may have concerns. The article resulted in the creation of a Blue Ribbon Committee on Privacy Concerns, the Advisory Committee on Technology and Privacy, and the eventual cancellation of the program.

As countries relax lockdown restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus, a compromise for free movement may be better access to civilian data. Dozens of digital contact tracking apps have been downloaded more than fifty million times in at least twenty-three countries. Meanwhile, authorities in the UK and other countries have used drones with video devices and temperature sensors to track those who have broken lockdown restrictions by being outside their homes. In the United States, a task force of data mining startups and tech companies is currently working with the White House to develop a range of tracking and surveillance technologies to fight the coronavirus. Other ideas considered include geolocation tracking of people using data from their phones and facial recognition systems to help determine who’s been in contact with people who later tested positive for the virus.

Such methods have raised concerns about “surveillance crawl,” where intrusive powers are expanded or data is used to pursue a range of criminal offenses. Therefore, data used to build predictive or preventive computer models around the coronavirus outbreak has several problems, the most important of which are privacy and accuracy. In the future, similar data collection techniques may be used to exchange information between countries about potential people suffering from an illness or at risk due to their travel. Unlike in the terrorist context, where countries work to exchange information with a foreign entity or actor (e.g., under United Nations Security Council Resolution 2396), countries must work together to prevent the spread of disease contain. However, concerns about the accuracy of the data shared by China and other countries in the early stages of the pandemic raise issues related to this initiative and a new international body may need to ensure that some countries avoid the temptation to travel to the coast, and hope that other countries will pick up the slack. It would also be useful for countries that have used surveillance techniques to sign a code of conduct to ensure that data analysis has adequate control.

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