High-Lights: Our Tech PR POV

Privacy During COVID-19

In the past four months, we’ve had to adjust the way we interact and how we think about our health and well-being. This shift has drastically changed our vision of the future (what will life look like post-COVID? How much will it change?) and it has many wondering how technology will make a difference in this fight.

With the government and big tech companies rapidly coming up with new solutions to help flatten the curve, the unflattering spotlight is again focused on the privacy and security concerns surrounding new technologies. It seems that with every new solution comes another privacy infringement.

But in these scary times, when lives are at risk every day, do people really care about the increase in surveillance technology? What are we willing to give up to be safer? What will we sacrifice for a return to normalcy?

Where the Privacy Battle Began 

This isn’t the first time a major event has shifted our view on privacy and surveillance. It’s not even the first time this century. September 11th was the first major challenge and has defined the struggle between privacy and “safety” since. As the nation worked to implement a quick response to the attack, many ignored their fear of mass surveillance to help the nation rebound.

Post 9/11, privacy has dominated the conversation as the amount of surveillance made possible by new technology, like social media, smartphones and more, increases. As we moved into a new era of “surveillance capitalism,” the more people — from the infosec community to privacy and human rights advocates — began to shine a brighter light on what was really happening behind closed doors. They  pushed for the implementation of GDPR in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act. While these laws are far from perfect, they are a start to regulating an industry that has seen very few boundaries set by legislation.  

Yet, despite the growing concerns around surveillance from Facebook and other Big Tech companies, 2.6 billion people still used Facebook in the first quarter of 2020. Facebook’s reputation may have taken a hit in the small — but growing —  circles that are worried about privacy, but for the wider population the services social media and internet-based technology offers seems worth the tradeoff.  And this was before a global pandemic really hit.

The New Era of COVID-19 Privacy

As people began to quickly adapt to life during COVID, so did Big Tech. With everyone hunkered down at home, our computers and internet connections became the only ways we could  interact with people outside our homes. Never before has being connected been so important. 

Enter Zoom, a video conferencing platform that blew up at the beginning of the pandemic. From virtual happy hours to birthdays to almost any event plus daily meetings, “Zoom” became a synonym for all video conferencing. Just as we were getting comfortable with Zoom, issues started popping up. From Zoom Bombing to the lack of end-to-end encryption that led to credential stuffing attacks. Then it came out that Zoom was allegedly sharing personal data with Facebook. Suddenly Zoom’s was in a privacy crisis.

Zoom almost immediately hired Alex Stamos, former CSO of Facebook, as a security advisor to help with its security image. It also acquired Keybase, an end-to-end encryption company.  Thanks to quick action during a crisis, the seas quieted down for a while. But another storm seems to already be brewing — around who gets end-to-end-encryption and how much it costs. 

Just as the Zoom headlines started to dwindle, another privacy issue took its place. Apple and Google released a contact tracing app. As soon as the partnership was announced, there were vocal concerns about another Silicon Valley scheme to monitor and possibly monetize the data of our daily lives. When faced with the option of using technology for contract tracing, many European governments are tied into knots about how the information and data collected is stored (centralized v decentralized). They aren’t too keen on private California companies being in control of citizen data and dictating policy decisions

But this conversation goes much further than Google and Apple. With governments running contact tracing apps, many fear that things could get dangerous quickly. What would happen if governments were to start releasing people’s COVID status, as has happened in Cook County, IL? Will governments use this data for other purposes? Are government networks secure enough to prevent a hacker getting a hold of  all our sensitive health and personal data?

COVID-19 has brought the privacy debate to the forefront again. The loudest voices right now may be privacy advocates, but what does the general public think? Let’s look at the numbers.  Zoom still has 300M daily meeting participants. In terms of contact tracing, a recent study by Axios/Ipsos found that the majority of Americans are likely to cooperate with contact tracing as long as it doesn’t involve handing over their cell phone location. People seem  at the very least too distracted with just the basics of living their lives to really pay close attention.The silent majority just wants its life back.

As contact tracing and other tech solutions are developed,  privacy concerns will only grow. However, it’s likely that the public won’t know the full extent of what we’ve compromised until COVID-19 is in the rear view. It’s worth noting that it was only in the years after 9/11 that the realities of government surveillance finally began to turn public opinion. It’s wise for companies now to take privacy seriously and build protections into the foundations of their tools, if they don’t want to see heavy backlash in the future. Crises — and the forgiveness we give during them —  don’t last forever.