Combatting COVID-19: Is your personal privacy at risk?

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As fear and concerns surrounding the current global health pandemic continue to worsen, governments are taking new steps in monitoring citizens. A recent article in the New York Times discusses how countries, including South Korea, Italy, and Israel, have begun harnessing surveillance footage as well as smartphone data to trace the movements and behaviors of citizens. In Italy, authorities are using location data from smartphones to determine who is obeying government lockdown procedures. 

As government officials across the world work to contain COVID-19, many have turned to digital surveillance as a means to control and monitor citizens. Health and law enforcement agencies have urged officials to employ every tool available to them to combat the growth of the pandemic. It seems few have considered how these efforts threaten personal privacy to secure public safety. 

Many fear that this could open new doors to new and more evasive surveillance techniques in the future. Many have cited the actions taken after 9/11 as a possible hint of what is to come. As technology continues to advance, authorities now have access to location tracking and facial recognition technologies. Many fear these technologies may eventually be repurposed to further political agendas of those in power. Still, many argue that in the event of an emergency, such as a pandemic, some liberties must be sacrificed to save lives. 

These actions are starting to hit close to home, as the White House has recently announced they would be working with Google, Facebook, and other tech companies to about using location data to track virus patients whereabouts. These actions would require tapping into the phone data of thousands of Americans for public health surveillance. Following this announcement, members of Congress spoke out uring the President and Vice President to take measures that would ensure the protection of said data. 

Earlier this month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio posted to Twitter, sharing details about a Westchester lawyer who potentially tested positive for COVID-19. The tweet included personal information, including his place of work and the names of schools attended by his children. Within hours, reporters had identified the man, classifying him as “patient zero” in the state. The lawyer’s wife soon took to Facebook, asking the public to focus on mitigation efforts, rather than targeting and finger-pointing at the family. This is just one example of the risk involved in harvesting and then sharing the personal data of civilians amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Negligence and carelessness could potentially put targets on the backs of patients, leading to dangerous and even potentially fatal backlash. 

 

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