Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Crisis of Privacy in the Time of the Pandemic

-- By BaiksungYang - 10 Mar 2022 (Revised on 21 April 2022)

I. Introduction

In responding to the unprecedented pandemic, countries worldwide have recently taken various measures limiting individual freedom to a great extent. In particular, East Asian countries, such as South Korea, Singapore, and Hongkong, actively utilized some of their cutting-edge technologies in the war against COVID-19. As a result, these countries seemed to have achieved some success in the early days of the pandemic. However, these measures inevitably caused an infringement on the privacy of many citizens. Moreover, the emergence of new variants such as Delta and Omicron also raised questions about the utility of these newly introduced technologies. By looking deeper into some of the problems that these measures revealed, I hope to start a discussion about “to what extent the government in a modern society where technology is highly advanced should be allowed to collect and use personal information of its citizens.”

II. Collection and the Use of Personal Information During the Pandemic in East Asian Countries and its Problems

A. South Korea

1. Location Information Tracking

The Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act allows the Korean government to collect personal location information of patients with infectious diseases and persons suspected of contracting infectious diseases. The statute allows personal location information to be collected without prior notice as long as the government unilaterally decides that it is necessary to collect such information. There is no way for the individual to refuse or prevent the government from collecting it. With the help of the advanced technology, the government can easily and quickly collect other types of important personal information, such as personal identification information, mobile phone location information, credit, debit, prepaid, public transit card transaction information, immigration records, prescription and medical records, and CCTV records, to ultimately collect personal location information. The very nature of the pandemic made millions of people become patients or at least have close contact with patients, and as a result, the government was able to collect personal information of all those citizens whenever deemed necessary.

2. Disclosure of Movement Paths

The frightening consequences of allowing the government to collect citizens’ personal information in the name of public health were clearly revealed as the government began to disclose it to the entire nation. In the early days of the pandemic, there were no laws or regulations regarding the disclosure of movement paths of patients diagnosed positive with COVID-19. There was no particular guideline for the specific content or period of the information being disclosed and the disclosure method. Central and local governments competitively disclosed every single patients’ detailed movement paths by posting them on the website and sending emergency text messages to everyone living within its jurisdiction without any consent of the recipients, which eventually led to criticisms, rumors, and wild speculations about each patient. Even after the relevant statutes and the government’s guidelines for disclosure of movement paths were amended a few times, the government still retains broad discretion on this matter. Furthermore, the right to dispute through an objection is not adequately guaranteed because the Infectious Disease Control and Prevention Act states that the relevant person may file an objection only when any disclosed information is different from the actual fact.

B. Singapore

To slow down the spread of COVID-19, Singapore adopted a logging system called “SafeEntry,” which allows users to scan QR codes to check in to businesses and public venues, and an application called “TraceTogether,” which uses Bluetooth technology to detect and identify people who had close contact with the user of that application. If a citizen of Singapore is diagnosed positive with COVID-19, he or she must provide their "TraceTogether" data to the government. Although the government claimed that both of these measures were designed to minimize the invasion of citizens’ privacy, there was certain skepticism among the citizens because it was apparent that the government was collecting personal information such as mobile phone numbers and other identification data. Moreover, citizens were not happy when they later found out that the police actually had access to personal information collected by these measures.

C. Hong Kong

Hong Kong citizens are required to use a contact tracing application called “LeaveHomeSafe,” which utilizes QR codes to conduct anonymous contact tracing. Unlike "TraceTogether" used in Singapore, "LeaveHomeSafe" users have a choice on whether or not to upload their contact tracing data to a centralized server even when they were diagnosed positive with COVID-19. The voluntary characteristic of "LeaveHomeSafe," coupled with a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, caused fewer citizens to use this technology, and as a result, concerns about invasion of privacy were relatively low compared to other countries.

III. Conclusion

It was quite surprising to find out how much harm could be done to individual citizens' privacy when highly advanced technology and centralized government were combined with citizens’ indifference or ignorance. Whenever another serious risk to the public interest emerges in the future, the governments might be more than willing to infringe on individual citizens’ privacy without hesitation because they have already successfully done so during this pandemic. As history proves, it takes a long time and a tremendous amount of effort to gain individual freedom, but losing it is relatively easy.

After all, some countries are now beginning to second-guess the effectiveness of these privacy-invading new technologies. After experiencing an uncontrollable spike in the number of new COVID-19 cases caused by Delta and Omicron variants, Singapore and South Korea have removed nearly all COVID-19-related restrictions and abandoned the use of their new technologies, which naturally made people wonder whether the use of these privacy-invading new technologies was really necessary in the first place. Sacrificing individual citizens’ privacy even in the name of public interest should never be taken lightly. It is important to keep our eyes open and never let the government become a "big brother."

Useful work was done in improving the essay. The international focus helped, in one sense. But the limitation to zero-covid countries failed to show the most important conclusion: regardless of public health strategy, no country, anywhere, got any sustained benefit from smartassphone-based tracing. The disease outran the technology everywhere. So there was no benefit and only deadweight loss through privacy invasion. I pointed out to you that a de facto national requirement that people carry smartassphones ensures that such misadventures will happen. You didn't respond to the idea, which of course would be heresy in South Korea, as it would equally be heresy to give everyone a smartassphone in DPRK.

Your introduction and conclusion were adroitly edited to make the minimum adjustment consistent with the point that the tech didn't work for its ostensible purpose. We knew that it would be bad to allow the State to become perfectly despotic before (as the ever-present references to George Orwell remind us). Unless there is no new lesson at all here, which seems contrary to your interest in the subject, what is that new learning?

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r5 - 12 May 2022 - 13:35:55 - EbenMoglen
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