Coronavirus and geotracking: privacy concerns30.03.2020
The coronavirus outbreak is currently overtaking parts of Europe and North America with full force, with Italy officially having more coronavirus-related deaths than China. During the global coronavirus crisis, multiple high-tech solutions are set in place to help humanity battle the virus. The whole world is coming to a standstill as governments, sometimes using force, are encouraging people to remain home. Social-distancing would not have been possible if people did not have access to advanced technologies.
Online streaming platforms have been providing entertainment to hundreds of millions of people, a staggering amount of people have started telecommuting to schools and work, and the usage of health apps has seen a sudden increase as millions of people are being treated using telehealth apps – last thing governments around the world wanted was to see people with symptoms of a highly contagious disease such as Covid-19 flocking in front of emergency rooms.
However, the use of some technology is raising multiple privacy concerns too. Israel decided to use secretly collected cellphone data, usually intended for use in counterterrorism. The information was used to identify people who have crossed paths with people carrying Covid-19. A mix of geotracking and AI technologies allowed the Israeli government to identify people who should be quarantined because of their possible exposure to coronavirus. Iran launched an app that claimed to diagnose Covid-19. Still, most of what it does is collecting location data of millions of people, essentially acting as a backdoor for the government to track its citizens in real-time.
Coronavirus is highly contagious disease that will most likely require billions of people to get tested throughout 2020. By giving away a swab sample to hospitals, patients are also sharing DNA-like data. While there is no question that governments would want the best for their citizens, it is also important to note that there have been cases of government databases that have been hacked in the past. Just a few months ago, DOJ pressed charges against Chinese hackers for taping into Equifax. It is essential to know that most Americans wouldn’t be as happy if sensitive DNA data collected through Covid-19 testing, end up in the hands of foreign states such as China and Iran.
Google just launched a Covid-19 screening website. The new website developed by Alphabet is called Project Baseline and is meant to screen for Covid-19. The site only serves potential coronavirus carriers located in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties in California. Days after the launch, senators approached Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai and Vice President Mike Pence expressing concerns over how the company is planning to protect all the sensitive data that Americans will be sharing on the new website.
There is no doubt that government agencies are in place to serve its citizens. However, agencies are operated by people, and people sometimes make mistakes, mistakes that may expose personal information to hackers who should not have access to it. Governments should surely make sure that tools they’ve developed to combat terrorism, such as the location tracking tool used in Israel, remain only in safe hands. As for regular folks, all people who want to secure their digital life need to make sure all connected devices are protected by reliable anti-virus software.