The Invisible line: Internet privacy during the pandemic

The COVID-19 or coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly change many things about how we live our lives, how we work and how governments and other institutions prepare and respond to crises. It’s certainly changing our relationship with the internet.

With millions of people around the globe currently isolating themselves in order to curtail the spread of the virus, the internet has become an even more vital part of our lives. For many of us, it’s the way we are staying connected with family, purchasing food and other supplies and also how we are working. But what will these changes mean for how governments and other institutions use internet data?

Using internet data to track the virus
There has been a lot of excitement about how China and South Korea have used mobile location information (combined with CCTV and credit card transaction data in the case of South Korea) to identify and contact individuals who might have crossed paths with someone already infected with the coronavirus. The strategy relies on extensive testing to identify infected people as early as possible, followed by tracking data to work out where those people have been – and who was there at the same time.

In the US and, in particular, Europe (where privacy laws are very strong), authorities are using anonymized and aggregated data to understand general movement patterns but they do not yet have the same ability to drill down to the granular, individual level that some of their Asian counterparts have achieved. This means that in Europe, mobile data can be used to get a nearly, real-time view of how the population is responding to measures designed to encourage personal separation and self-isolation.

Back in my days working in the telecom industry, when we were looking to sell this anonymized data, we had one particularly powerful presentation, which showed the journeys of commuters passing through London’s busy Waterloo station at 9am on a Monday morning. The brighter the image, the more commuters were present at a given moment. You could rewind time and see the glow of commuters standing at their local station, then getting onto an even more radiant (and therefore more packed) train, which you could follow along its route, finally arriving at a supernova-bright Waterloo Station. Then commuters suddenly disappeared, down into the London Underground, reappearing in clusters in the City (financial center) or the creative center around Soho.

Not crossing the invisible line
For governments, struggling to combat the virus outbreak, it must be incredibly tempting to harness this data. The potential of what ‘Big Tech’ knows about us or could infer about us is immense. Take my own situation. I have a Google Android handset and tablet at home. The Android operating system, and a large number of the applications, I run on both devices, all know my location because frankly I couldn’t be bothered to check the privacy statements hidden in the terms and conditions. Google knows where I live and work, based on my travel routines. They know my interests and, through Google Pay, what I actually buy and where I buy it. And my social media activities give them access to my friendship groups and professional networks.

So, if government wanted to target a message to workers involved in food preparation about hygiene, the data is there. If a sunny weekend encouraged too many people to go down to Brighton and enjoy the beach, the government could warn them individually, and potentially issue an even sterner warning if the same behaviors were repeated. Who are the people who are currently panic buying all the pasta or toilet paper? To whom has all of the hand sanitizer gone? Well, it would be easy to spot the increased frequency of supermarket visits and sudden increase in spending patterns, particularly if supermarket loyalty card data could be accessed.

While the techie in me sees the possibilities that access to personal data could deliver, the libertarian in me is really uncomfortable with the fact that the coronavirus might encourage governments and businesses – for very good, (and hopefully) short-term reasons -  to cross that invisible line, and once crossed we might never go back. The UK Government talks about “proportionate response” and this is probably the right approach. Even in Italy, now the epicenter of the outbreak, the line has held, and mobile data insights remain at the anonymized aggregate level.

This darker potential of the technology should not be ignored. Social media can be a force for good, but it is also a vehicle for disinformation and stoking prejudice. While Facebook is viewed as a primary news source for something like 40% of Americans, Facebook and other social media giants eschew editorial responsibility. This must change. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and growing evidence of Russian interference in the democratic processes of other nations highlights the Orwellian risk and deeper moral failings of ‘Big Tech’.

It’s not all doom and gloom
But let’s end on a positive note – because we are going to need all the positivity we can muster to get through this pandemic together. The broadband and mobile networks of the telecom operators are the fabric that is holding economies and communities together through this challenging period. And there are encouraging signs that providers are stepping up to their role in helping us all through the crisis. One example is the lifting of data limits for students so they can do their course work remotely without being penalized. 

But there will be much consider once we have made it through the COVID-19 pandemic, not just this question about the boundaries of smart data use and privacy. Another important question will be whether this crisis has created a groundswell of support for the notion that internet access should be a universal human right. Imagine being stuck now without internet access. What would your life be like? Now hold that thought in your mind and consider whether digital connectivity and the skills to use it should be accessible to everyone.

Mark Harrop

Senior Strategic Opportunities Director Ask me a question
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