Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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Privacy in the Wake Of COVID - American's Refusal to Compromise on Privacy

-- By BrianJohnson - 15 Apr 2021


Since 9/11, America has given up a vast majority of privacy rights when in crisis. Between the PATRIOT act, the department of homeland security, and freedom of movement, the terrorist attacks movtivated American citizens to part with their personal freedoms in the name of safety. These programs granted sweeping power to the federal government’s power to police its citizens. While they were ready and willing to do what was necessary to face the consequence at hand, American’s failed to think of the long-term consequences of giving up these rights. As many citizens learned, once a right is waived, it can be extremely hard to get it back. In the wake of COVID, there were calls for the government to step in and track American citizens. Individuals were testing positive for this disease ravaging our country, and lawmakers could have passed emergency measures to track private citizens. Instead, our government acted within its constitutional powers, as people were not willing to give up the freedom of private movement we have enjoyed thus far. This article will examine proposed bills which would have infringed upon the privacy rights of citizens, the steps taken in other countries, and how private companies need to approach data collection to preserve the privacy of citizens.

Outside the United States

Outside of the United States, countries have been much more willing to sacrifice the privacy of their citizens to better protect them from Coronavirus. Israel has just approved a plan for digital surveillance of all quarantined arrivals – they must either wear a bracelet or be tracked through other digital means, including their cell phones. The Iranian government built an app for its citizens to self-check their symptoms, which included a geo-tagging service. South Korea has used mobile network data, app-sourced data, and CCTV footage to get comprehensive pictures of people’s points of infection. Their government has so much access to its people’s transaction history it can track the movement of its entire population, isolating those who have become symptomatic for COVID. Even France has stepped up its surveillance, using CCTV footage from within public transportation to identify and fine individuals failing to comply with mask-wearing regulations. All of these examples show how countries have been increasing surveillance and compromising privacy in the name of public health. In many ways this can be needed for a crisis – there is a reason why South Korea had substantially lower COVID infections and deaths than the United States per capita, and this infringement upon personal liberty helped produce that outcome. However, the inroads taken by the government to further surveil their citizens will not be gone in a post-COVID world.

The United States Comparison

The United States has been hit substantially harder by COVID, but we have retained our general privacy protections. While states have imposed quarantine orders for those crossing state lines, imposed lockdowns and restrictions on business operations, mandated the wearing of masks, all of these advancements are in direct response to COVID, with limited applicability after the pandemic is under control. While people may feel their liberty is under assault due to a mask mandate, there is no backdoor the government can leave, allowing them to force the mask back on your face after COVID has passed. Increases in surveillance technology always lead to the preservation of that technology so it can be used at a later date. So, even if the public is successful in clawing back their previous privacy rights, the government will know exactly how to conduct such a surveillance campaign moving forward. Overall, Americans saw the risks to privacy outweighing the benefits of compromising their privacy during the pandemic, which has led to maintenance of our current privacy rights, while those rights have eroded in other countries.

Privacy Preservation by Private Parties

With all of these intrusions on privacy by governments, citizens must also be concerned with safeguarding their privacy against the companies their use, and those companies must in turn put their users first. Surprisingly, Apple and Google (known for their complete violations of their user’s privacy) developed a tool to assist in contact tracing. This “exposure notification” tool put the privacy of users first, preventing users from putting the exact location where they had been in contact with others, but notifying the other users who had been in contact with the symptomatic individual. This app was designed so that it could not be shared with insurers or employers, and prevented tracking of movement directly by preventing users from explicitly saying where contact occurred. Furthermore, all data uploaded to the app was deleted after 14 days. All of this led to an app that promoted public health, while keeping strong the bulwark of privacy rights. It did exactly what it was meant too, without the risk of user’s health insurance premiums increasing, adverse employment action, or criminal penalties (such as fines imposed by municipalities for failing to stay quarantined). This achieved the goal with the least potential for intrusion of privacy possible, and should be seen as a template for future private companies acting during a crisis. It is just as important to prevent private actors from creating backdoors to violations of privacy as it is the government, since the government is a looming threat to take advantage of such loopholes in consumer protection.


Overall, while the United States handled the pandemic extremely poorly, it did not sacrifice the long-term privacy right of its citizens in order to address the crisis. This marks a clear pivot away from trust in the government as was present a mere two decades ago, and realization that rights must be preserved. Hopefully, citizens in places of increased surveillance during this pandemic aren’t too surprised to realize the enacted measures aren’t as temporary as they were led to believe.

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r1 - 15 Apr 2021 - 22:03:13 - BrianJohnson
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