As if the global coronavirus pandemic didn’t give us enough to worry about, privacy experts — including University of Baltimore School of Law professors Michele E. Gilman and Kim Wehle — are warning that the use of surveillance networks to track the spread of the virus is forcing governments to make difficult trade-offs between public health and privacy.
In a March 30 article for The Bulwark, Wehle, who is a visiting professor and fellow at American University this semester, explains how governments are digitally tracking citizens as part of their pandemic management strategies.
“As of this writing, eighteen countries across the globe—including European democracies like Germany and Austria—are using some form of digital tracking to get on top of the coronavirus,” Wehle writes. “In their most modest forms, programs have ranged from using apps to identify people who have been exposed to infected individuals (e.g., Singapore and India); to using phone records, CCTV feeds, credit card transactions, and GPS systems to trace COVID-19 patients’ contacts (e.g., Poland and South Korea).
“Some countries are imposing fines and prison time for violating quarantine orders (e.g., Hong Kong). Italy has reportedly employed ‘an aggregated and anonymous heat map’ to trace population movements in Lombardy. In some countries, governments have gone even further—adopting physical surveillance measures like facial-recognition cameras or surveillance drones (e.g., Belgium, Spain, Russia and China), or censoring parties for publicizing false or misleading information on the Internet (e.g., Singapore, Iran and Egypt),” she writes.
Despite the protections promised American citizens in the Bill of Rights, when we waive our privacy rights for the convenience of using online services like Amazon and Facebook, who then sell our data to the government, we really have no recourse, Wehle writes.
“When we click and swipe and post and tweet, we are willingly giving our personal data to Google or Facebook or Twitter—which, as private companies, are generally not bound by the Constitution’s restrictions. And unlike a police officer physically rifling through closets and drawers, the availability of big data makes surveillance possible through application of mathematical algorithms to many bits of information that are already swirling in cyberspace, untethered to a particular narrative,” she writes.
Wehle elaborates on this topic in a March 30 podcast on Seattle radio station KVI-AM.
In a March 23 article in Coindesk, Gilman, who is Venable Professor of Law and director of the Saul Ewing Advocacy Clinic at UB, shares similar concerns. “During times of crisis, civil liberties are most at risk because the normal balance of safety versus privacy becomes tilted toward safety,” says Gilman, who for the 2019-20 academic year has been a fellow at Data & Society, a New York-based think tank that studies the social impact of data-centric technology.
“A major concern is that new surveillance technologies deployed during the coronavirus crises will become the ‘new normal’ and permanently embedded in everyday life after the crisis passes. This can result in ongoing mass surveillance of the population without adequate transparency, accountability or fairness,” she says.
“Things that may now be considered mundane, such as an abundance of surveillance cameras, being subjected to full body screens at the airport and the idea that we are constantly being observed, weren’t always the case,” the article’s author, Benjamin Powers, notes. “Often, public crises provide opportunities for surveillance architecture to move forward and become normalized fixtures of society. and create commercial opportunities for tech companies to provide new and ever more intrusive ways of tracking individuals.”
Facial recognition software is one example of technologies deployed by governments under the guide of enhancing public safety, but with significant potential for abuse. Extensive research shows the technology is not equally accurate on everyone.
“Facial recognition is notoriously inaccurate for women and people of color,” says Gilman. “Given this, why would we adopt such technologies to battle coronavirus? Moreover, we need much more information on how these technologies are effective in battling a global pandemic.”
Wehle concludes her Bulwark piece with this: “It is difficult in this moment of global anxiety and fear to identify silver linings. But if the COVID-19 pandemic focuses public attention on the privacy threats posed by big data surveillance—and the lack of unequivocal constitutional protections from government abuse of personal data—that may be a hint of silver in the gloom.”