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Permanent surveillance may be a "new normality" after a pandemic

We know for a long time that digital technology can record every sign of our activity on the web. Digital traces are easy to track. Advertising agencies, online stores and banks take advantage of this by targeting ads and observing our shopping preferences. In recent weeks, however, we have moved to a new level of these practices.

Never before has technology been so intensively and widely used for simultaneous health diagnostics and indirectly for society management. Such a large scale of extraordinary activities, in which our privacy becomes very fragile, only the inhabitants of America from the period after September 11 remember. Chinese citizens may also be less surprised by the situation. There, to build a social scoring system, data from the network, street cameras and smartphones are used.

Measurements, controls, laws

During a pandemic, digital devices follow us on the streets, in stores, and even in our homes. Applications such as TraceTogether , using bluetooth technology, allow you to track contacts of an infected person with others. Wristbands connected to a smartphone control the movement of persons subject to quarantine. The manufacturer of smart thermometers has launched a website that collects data from hundreds of thousands of homes to predict an increase in infection. Applications can recognize coronavirus infection by the type of cough, and drones will locate people who have a fever from the air. Technology measures, and service representatives and doctors sanctioning its use change these measurements into new norms of social functioning.

What will happen to our data?

Each of us - not having a special choice - agreed to restrict some rights. If we choose between a guarantee of privacy protection and a guarantee of health protection, then of course we choose health. We agreed to limit the freedom of movement out of concern, fear, sometimes cold calculation. However, we are starting to ask ourselves questions, what next? They relate to work, personal life, economy and politics. But they also apply to information that was collected about us during the crisis.

Is it guaranteed that the data regarding the address of residence and contacts with loved ones collected during the pandemic will no longer be stored? In the case of data collected online in times of "normality" we have relative control over them. Thanks to the GDPR, we can withdraw our consent to data processing, demand their removal. Now the situation has become more complicated, because legislators refer to resolutions and special provisions introduced during the crisis.

Privacy experts do not hide their reservations about how governments, institutions and private companies use data to implement security policies. Biometric and location data have become day-to-day health data. Face scanning at borders is treated as a technology that serves to maintain hygiene. While such methods of interpretation at the time of greatest threat seem sensible, maintaining these methods for longer will be dangerous. As Yuval Harari wrote in an article published in the Financial Times:

Until now, when the finger touched the smartphone screen and clicked the link, the government wanted to know what exactly the finger was clicking. But with coronavirus, interest changes. Now the government wants to know your finger temperature and blood pressure under the skin.

Cambridge Syndrome Analyst

The danger of data leaks that reach third parties is high. And we're not talking about hacker attacks at all. The Cambridge Analyst scandal has shown that by logging in to games and quizzes on Facebook, we have facilitated access to our data to external entities. A similar mechanism can be found when we log in to the application to monitor the well-being or contact with infected people. The situation is becoming dangerous because the data collected during the pandemic are about health, and they are always a tasty morsel for banks and insurance companies. In addition, do we have guarantees that the data collected for the needs of health care institutions will not sooner or later reach the security services and the hands of politicians? These questions are now valid in almost every country.

Government declarations

COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis because it has a global reach. However, societies' approach to privacy is of course different. Singapore has declared that its TraceTogether app does not record location data or access to the smartphone user's contact list. Data sets are stored on encrypted phones. Google and Apple also announce such encryption. Interestingly, the French authorities, which have been unsuccessfully trying to create their own solutions, have not agreed to use the ready-made software of these companies. South Korea has announced that the information gathering activities will end after the outbreak and that all personal data of citizens will be deleted.

What's next? Every social program, especially the crisis one, should be limited in time. A situation in which representatives of the services can easily know where the selected resident of a given country is at a given moment cannot be treated as a standard of normality. It is not a model to manage the data of millions of citizens as if they were military data. At some point, signs of overcoming the crisis understood in terms of health risks will come. Will these positive signals be accompanied by governments' declarations of a return to normality regarding the protection of our data - we do not know that.

Norbert Biedrzycki

Head of Services CEE, Microsoft. Manages Microsoft services in 36 countries, their scope includes business consulting and technological consulting, in particular in such areas as big data and artificial intelligence, business applications, cybersecurity, premium services and cloud. Formerly Vice President Digital McKinsey responsible for the CEE region and services combining strategic consulting and implementation of advanced IT solutions. From comprehensive digital transformation through rapid implementation of business applications, big data solutions and analysis, business applications of artificial intelligence to blockchain and IoT solutions. Earlier Norbert was the President of the Management Board and CEO of Atos Polska, he was also the head of ABC Data SA and the President of the Management Board and CEO of Sygnity SA. Previously he also worked at McKinsey as a partner, he was the director of consulting services and Oracle business development department.

Norbert's passion is the latest robotics technologies, applications of artificial intelligence, blockchain, VR and AR, Internet of Things, and their impact on the economy and society. You can read more about this on Norbert's blog .

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Permanent surveillance may be a "new normality" after a pandemic


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