Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Surveillance in the Name of Health

Sara Morrison, Recode:

I gave away tons of personal data to get the things I needed. Food came from grocery and restaurant delivery services. Everything else — clothes, kitchen tools, a vanity ring light for Zoom calls, office furniture — came from online shopping platforms. I took an Uber instead of public transportation. Zoom became my primary means of communication with most of my coworkers, friends, and family. I attended virtual birthdays and funerals. Therapy was conducted over FaceTime. I downloaded my state’s digital contact tracing tool as soon as it was offered. I put a camera inside my apartment to keep an eye on things when I fled the city for several weeks.

Millions of Americans have had a similar pandemic experience. School went remote, work was done from home, happy hours went virtual. In just a few short months, people shifted their entire lives online, accelerating a trend that would have otherwise taken years and will endure after the pandemic ends — all while exposing more and more personal information to the barely regulated internet ecosystem. At the same time, attempts to enact federal legislation to protect digital privacy were derailed, first by the pandemic and then by increasing politicization over how the internet should be regulated.

Last year marked an increased dependency for much of the world on one of its most poorly-regulated industries. We were held together by many of the same companies that were shown over the preceding several years to be deeply flawed — especially when it comes to privacy.

And it could be so much worse.

Kirsten Han, Rest of World:

[Singaporean] authorities claim that such technologies have greatly strengthened their contact-tracing efforts. In early November, the health minister said that 25,000 close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases had been identified through TraceTogether, of which 160 eventually tested positive. The country reported zero cases of community transmission most days in November.

Despite these successes, the imposition of more intrusive data collection technology has unnerved privacy advocates, who worry that the pandemic will be used to justify the surveillance of citizens without consideration of the long-term consequences, and without sufficient checks and balances. 

Those concerns look increasingly well-founded. When Parliament reopened in January 2021, Desmond Tan, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Home Affairs, said that the police would also be able to access TraceTogether data for criminal investigations. The privacy statement on the TraceTogether website, which had previously stated that collected data would “only be used solely for contact tracing of persons possibly exposed to COVID-19,” was amended shortly afterwards.

This is wildly invasive and incredibly short sighted. Device-based contact tracing and exposure notification already faced an uphill battle on privacy. It is now practically impossible in much of the world thanks to early but flawed contact tracing apps and broken promises about proximity data use. But not in Singapore, where their contact tracing app remains mandatory.

Update: “Location” in the last paragraph was changed to “proximity”. Thanks Stuart.