Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Covid-19, State Collaboration and Data Mining, Oh My!

-- By LiliaJimenez - 12 Mar 2021


When COVID-19 became a concern, many thought it would not last more than a few weeks. The pandemic has now surpassed its one-year mark and people from all around the world have been forced to embrace a “new normal.” This new normal of working remotely, spending more time using screens, visiting covid testing sites and now, getting vaccinated, has thrust society deeper into the realm of digital reliance and vulnerability. Access to covid testing, vaccines and covid-related apps often require sensitive information and signed agreements, which have become routine and are encouraged, are signed blithely. While the current administration’s efforts to gain herd immunity as quickly as possible has offered optimism for getting back to normalcy, individuals are eager to do anything that will allow them the “freedoms” of the past like being worry free about covid, traveling, attending concerts, sporting events and others alike. These freedoms, which have taken hold quickly as countries plan to open their borders, have come at a cost: people’s data and privacy.

The Real Winners of the Pandemic

The Perfect Storm for Mass Data Collection

While the White house spokeswoman Jen Psaki when asked about vaccine passports at a press conference April, 6, 2021 said “There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential,” this hasn’t stopped third parties from obtaining such data. The pandemic has aided tech companies by the vast amount of sensitive health and personal information that individuals have forked over in the name of patriotism, caution and health during the pandemic. Third parties have already weaponized behavioral data to their benefit but the pandemic has given them and others more ways to do so.

Tech companies, Pharmacies, local healthcare clinics, drug stores and state run vaccination sites across the nation have stepped in to help the federal government control the mess that was testing and vaccine roll outs. While contact tracing apps were not as effective in curbing the spread of the virus as people hoped, apps like Dr. B, a company that at the height of scarcity and restrictions for the vaccine connected vaccine providers with extra doses to people who were willing to get the vaccine in a moment’s notice, were successful. ( The app also required a host of personal information to sign up. Most required information on Covid-19 related health forms obtained by pharmacies, apps and tech companies is basic information. One of the main issues is that people are giving away sensitive information voluntarily and don’t really understand what it is being used for or who it is shared with. Is that really informed privacy? If left unchecked, the troves of data collected by private companies and shared with governments are equivalent to a state of surveillance and a deprivation of a person’s right to live a private life.

The Profit Chasing Data Broker

It’s not hard to tell who the real winners of the pandemic are; Amazon’s pandemic profits topped their previous 3 years of earnings reporting first-quarter earnings of $8.11 billion. While brick-and-mortar stores closed, Amazon has now posted four consecutive record quarterly profits, attracted more than 200 million Prime loyalty subscribers, and recruited over 500,000 employees to keep up with surging demand. ( Their success, in their profits and even their employees not forming a union, is built not only on the weak stance on antitrust by the government but also on the data they transfer and the fact that privacy concerns have been pushed aside when it comes to third parties ability to profit off of their mass data collection. Despite recent data breaches and hacks, the United States has failed to implement comprehensive federal data privacy reform and has created a privacy vortex in which data brokers dominate. (Lauren Bass, The Concealed Cost of Convenience: Protecting Personal Data Privacy in the Age of Alexa, 30 Fordham Intell. Prop. Media & Ent. L.J. 261 (2019). Available at:

What The Future Holds

Interestingly, while governments and tech companies are still racing to figure out what it takes to create a successful universal digital pass, and companies like Amazon have been under fire for numerous problematic practices such as employee surveillance and potentially breaking laws to derail workers union vote, privacy issues and concerns have gained traction as the pandemic’s end is closer in sight. Part of this recognition is due to the wrong reasons such as anti-vaxxers and anit-maskers following misinformation pushed by former President Trump ( but also by concerned citizens rightfully hesitant to give away their sensitive information.

There is a major divergence among states and even among nations between a “privacy-first” approach which protects citizens’ data at the cost of extremely limited access for public health authorities and researchers, and a “data-first” approach which stores large amounts of data which, while of immeasurable value to epidemiologists and other researchers, may significantly intrude upon citizens’ privacy. (Fahey RA, Hino A. COVID-19, digital privacy, and the social limits on data-focused public health responses. Int J Inf Manage. 2020;55:102181. doi:10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2020.102181) Some states have introduced bans or restrictions on any form of a state required Covid-19 passport and some states have introduced voluntary apps that act as digital-passes and confidentially transfer information about the status of an individual’s covid results and vaccination status. An important question is: why are tech companies with a data-first approach not a concern? And how can we enhance people access to knowledge capital?

This pandemic has made clear that the lack of sufficient privacy policies, evoking the third party doctrine, is no longer an excuse. One example that highlights this is Facebook’s sheer panic and weak response to Apple rolling out stronger privacy protections for their users. As discussed in class, The Third Party Doctrine, which, holds that people who voluntarily give information to third parties "no reasonable expectation of privacy," which then allows the United States government to obtain information from third parties without a legal warrant and without otherwise complying with the Fourth Amendment is a legal loophole. A running theme and possible solution to the heightened privacy concerns and blatant profiteering of large tech companies is a more widespread education about technology and privacy concerns. Hopefully more robust knowledge acquired by everyday citizens would encourage individuals to question what limits on power are put in place to effectively govern state action and how can these limits go beyond the pandemic to protect individuals rights to a private life and start to put privacy back into their own hands with simple changes to the way they interact with and use technology.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Webs Webs

r3 - 19 May 2021 - 02:46:41 - LiliaJimenez
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM