According to U.S. government officials, privacy may be a necessary victim of the novel coronavirus. According to the Washington Post, federal officials have recently held conversations with an array of tech companies to discuss increased access to geolocation information taken from Americans’ smartphones. That’s highly personal information, showing who meets with whom and who goes where. Officials say they need the data to map the spread of the disease and determine if people are self-quarantining and that it will be kept anonymous and aggregated to protect privacy. But we should all be concerned about how that data could be used once the current pandemic has passed.
If it follows through on this, the U.S. would be following the lead of Israel, which recently became the latest country to consider deploying counterterrorism tools and techniques to monitor people who may have the coronavirus. Israeli government officials claim these methods are necessary for the good of public health. The Israeli High Court of Justice has pushed back, saying the Knesset (the Israeli legislative body) must have oversight of this program established by Tuesday or any surveillance will be frozen. South Korea has also embraced surveillance to fight the disease, tracking recently identified patients’ credit transactions, phone registration, and CCTV camera appearances to map their movements. (Surveillance cameras are quite prevalent in South Korea—between 2010 and 2015 the number of public cameras installed grew from 300,000 to 740,000 and has likely only increased since.)
As fears and infection rates rise, policies that originally seemed draconian, like the Chinese government’s quarantining the entire city of Wuhan, may begin to look more reasonable to the general population of any given country. It’s normal for people to demand more government oversight during a pandemic, when the impact of others’ decisions have an outsized, and in some cases fatal, impact on our lives and those of our loved ones. But while a shift toward favoring government intervention may be natural during a pandemic, we should still be wary of just what behaviors we normalize.
Besides South Korea and Israel, until now it’s primarily been countries with authoritarian regimes who have rushed to embrace privacy infringing technology during this pandemic. For instance, the Iranian government has endorsed an app as a potential diagnosis tool—but a recent article by Vice News walks through the reasons it might actually be a tool for population monitoring for the sake of quelling dissent. Facial recognition software is being used in Russia and China to monitor people who pose potential risks and ensure that they don’t leave designated quarantine zones. China has also rolled out temperature scanners which can detect whether a person has a fever. China’s camera surveillance system, already widespread, is now nearly omnipresent. And governments in all three countries have spread disinformation campaigns claiming the United States is behind the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United States doesn’t have the same scale of pre-existing surveillance infrastructure as China or South Korea. But that doesn’t mean government officials aren’t interested in implementing potential surveillance measures that would normally raise eyebrows. According to a Wall Street Journal article, Clearview A.I. Inc, a startup that specializes in facial recognition software, has had discussions with state agencies about using the technology to track infected patients. You might remember Clearview AI as the subject of a January New York Times article called “The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It.”
This comparison is not to suggest the United States is on the verge of becoming a surveillance state on the same scale. American citizens are far less tolerant of government surveillance than Chinese, Russian or Iranian citizens, for whom extensive government monitoring is a familiar fact of life. Some cities, like San Francisco, have even banned the use of facial recognition technology.
However, the willingness of countries like the United States, Israel, and South Korea to increase surveillance in these extraordinary times is concerning, because it pushes the boundaries of current norms regarding acceptable limits of government’s surveillance of its own citizens in democratic nations. And limits on government, once eradicated, are often difficult to reinstate. The sudden expansion of government power during times of crisis, the ratchet effect, is described in economist Robert Higgs’ book Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government.
One frequently cited example of the ratchet effect is the impact of 9/11 on the American intelligence community, which led to an increase in government surveillance and a decrease in privacy for American citizens. Some privacy experts have already likened Israel’s response to the coronavirus to the establishment of the Patriot Act in the U.S. after 9/11. Of course, government expansion is sometimes rolled back once the crisis in question is over. -In 2015, President Obama signed into law the USA Freedom Act, which prohibited the government from bulk collection of American telephone and internet metadata, previously allowed under the Patriot Act. However, government power is rarely returned to its restricted, pre-crisis state.
Despite the USA Freedom Act, the government today still has much greater surveillance authority from Congress than it did before 9/11. The USA Freedom Act was also partially a response to the Edward Snowden revelations—without them, the bulk collection might still be continuing. Furthermore, the rapid development of technology since 2001 makes potential privacy violations all the more worrying as government officials interact with tech companies who hold more information about individuals than they ever have before.
When people are afraid, they are far more willing to consider trading away freedoms in the name of safety without thinking about the long-term consequences. The government is currently scrambling for ways to get on top of the quickly spreading disease. COVID-19, like terrorism after 9/11, is a real threat to many people and giving up some levels of privacy may be a reasonable response to at least consider. But the coronavirus won’t last forever. Policymakers must ensure that the norms we agree to regarding privacy in times of crisis don’t outlast the disease itself and eventually lead to a crisis of a different kind.
On Thursday, Democratic Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Suzan K. DelBene and Sen. Ron Wyden sent a letter to the White House urging the administration to prioritize protecting privacy and expressing concern about government collection of geolocation data. In their letter, they mention several limitations that should be established, including prohibiting the transfer to such data to any of agencies or organizations not directly involved with public health. They also recommend prohibiting any attempts to identify any specific individuals from anonymous data. Americans should support these, and similar efforts, to limit government surveillance to keep privacy from becoming another COVID-19 fatality.