Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Privacy Amidst COVID-19

Firmin DeBrabander

It is exciting and troubling to ponder the profound changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example: what will remain of offices when all is said and done? Will there be any? Why make the commute—why rush out the door, juggle childcare, sit in traffic, tolerate boorish coworkers—when the pandemic has shown you can do much, if not most, of your work via teleconferencing from the comfort of your own home?

For that matter, what will remain of the mall? COVID-19 shuttered stores across the country and several renowned retailers have declared bankruptcy amidst the turmoil. Again: why schlep to the mall and fight over parking when you can browse online—and have Amazon deliver to your front door in a matter of hours? This includes groceries too; many will be grateful they are spared the hassle of trekking to the supermarket, navigating the aisles, filling up the shopping cart, bagging the food, etc. Instacart will deliver your food, already bagged.

Educators nervously contemplate the impact of the digital revolution in our schools and colleges. The pandemic exposed the tenuous business model of universities, who increasingly rely on international students to pay soaring tuitions. When people see how much instruction can be conveyed via Zoom, will they be eager to splurge on campus comforts like spacious dormitories, gleaming gyms, and bountiful cafeterias?

What these changes have in common is a growing reliance on digital technologies. After COVID-19, we will likely continue to conduct business and chores—even happy hours—online. There are many benefits from this culture change, no doubt. But privacy will be a casualty.

Privacy is the price we pay for the wondrous conveniences of digital technology. In my analog existence, I might drive to the mall, select some clothes, pay cash—and no one would be the wiser (except my wife of course, who judges my outfits). Now, Amazon may scrutinize my online purchases, build a profile of me, and deliver personalized ads. Data analysts will be eager to study my grocery lists compiled on Instacart; increasingly, they believe such mundane and otherwise unremarkable information betrays essential facts. Consider, for example, that one Canadian retailer discovered that the purchase of furniture pads correlates with creditworthiness. And Target developed a plan for determining when female customers are pregnant—in their second trimester no less—on the basis of certain purchases. Why do they want to know this, you ask? To better direct—or personalize—their ads. Personalized marketing, as one retail expert put it, is the ‘holy grail’ of advertising. We are more likely seduced or plied by personalized marketing—and less likely to worry about privacy concerns, such as, does Target know we are expecting a baby?

Thanks to COVID-19, retailers and marketers have a wealth of data to analyze. And the public health response constitutes another bold frontier for surveillance, providing highly intimate information about us. Some of the countries that have most successfully controlled the pandemic deployed contact tracing systems that were digitalized and expansive. South Korea, for example, avoided imposing a nationwide lockdown. Instead, it tracks the movement of citizens and retraces the “steps of those diagnosed with the virus by using GPS phone tracking, credit card records, surveillance video and interviews with patients.” Singapore urged citizens to download a cellphone app, which informs them—and the government—when they have encountered someone reportedly infected. Citizens are then required to self-quarantine, and penalized if they stray.

For now, the US is rolling out an old-fashioned model of contact tracing. It involves hiring thousands of people to call those infected with Coronavirus, ask their recent whereabouts and contacts, and call those contacts in turn, urging them to quarantine. This form of contact tracing has proven successful in the past, but it is slow, and delicate—the contact tracers must hope that those infected pick up the phone, and are willing to divulge key information. Contact tracers must be trained to successfully extract this information. This process is time consuming, and requires significant manpower. As of now, states have not hired and trained nearly enough people to do this work. What’s more, the army of contact tracers will require significant government spending, which is a painful proposition in the midst of a recession.

Enter digital technology. It has the potential to make the process of contact tracing much quicker, and cheaper. This is no small lure for countries eager to reopen their economies and schools. Several contact tracing apps are under development in Europe and the US right now. While China mandated that its citizens download the app, the US and other democracies will make it voluntary—but to be effective, contact tracing must be “nearly ubiquitous.” American contact tracing apps, therefore, must be sufficiently appealing for consumers to download—and easy to use, of course. These appear to be the biggest challenges that technology developers work to overcome. And, some believe, they must allay privacy concerns surrounding such apps; thus, the apps must—as far as possible—preserve the anonymity of contacts and those infected.

I doubt people are really so concerned about their privacy as app developers believe. Americans are eager—desperate—to get back to normal life. This was made clear by the way they rushed to get back to business as usual as soon as governors reopened state economies—with tragic consequences. And frankly, there is only so much privacy protection these contact tracing apps can ensure. Data analysts have proven repeatedly that they require little information indeed to identify us, and perhaps even know us well. Facebook’s analysts have reportedly sketched profiles of people not on the social media platform, but whose existence (and personality) is merely invoked by members. And, privacy scholar Bruce Schneier points out, “95% of Americans can be identified by name from just four time/data/location points.” The privacy concerns surrounding contact tracing may be moot anyway, as we become ever more dependent on digital technology to shop, work, and learn.

The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated the assault on privacy waged by digital technology. It is hard to see favorable prospects for its future. How shall we fare in a world increasingly without privacy? That is perhaps low on people’s list of concerns at the moment. But it is another dramatic change that potentially faces us in a post-COVID-19 future.

Header photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

Life after Privacy by Firmin DeBrabander
Life after Privacy by Firmin DeBrabander

About The Author

Firmin DeBrabander

Firmin DeBrabander is Professor of Philosophy, Maryland Institute College of Art. He has written commentary pieces for a number of national publications, including the New York Tim...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!