Just over four weeks ago, the UK and the United States were engaged in a standoff. They debated whether or not Huawei equipment should be included in 5G mobile network buildouts. Long term surveillance alliances appear to be on the brink of fracture for the first time since its establishment post-WWII. Furthermore, the U.S. Senate formally introduced the EARN IT Act on March 5, 2020. For consumers, this act represents the most severe threat to end-to-end encryption. To top it off, the free world is also finding itself on the brink of economic collapse as the unprecedented health crisis, Covid-19 is forcing many industries to shut down.
Ravage of Covid-19
The first case of Covid-19 appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China. In didn’t take long for this novel coronavirus to spread to all corners of the world. At the time of publishing this article, the majority of the world is still in lock-down in an effort to slow the spread.
Italy is one of the first countries, outside of China, to become the epicenter of the disease. This country who prides itself on La Dolce Vita, the good life, has seen its death count grow to almost 7,000 people within a few weeks of the first case. Spain, Britain, France, and many other countries across the globe are facing a rising number of the same macabre statistics.
In a matter of days, the United States follows the same steps. With a slow response from the government and a widely unprepared healthcare system, the country is watching coronavirus numbers skyrocket at record numbers. The efforts put in place to flatten the curve has forced the majority of industries to pause. The economy has quickly plummeted since the lockdown and the numbers are nowhere close to getting any better.
A Silver Lining for Big Tech
While most industries, such as airline, oil, and entertainment, struggle to keep afloat, entrenched tech companies watch their revenues climb. As countries practice social distancing on a global scale, people are naturally turning to technology as social alternatives. People are spending more time on large social media sites such as Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube.
Through this shift in cultural behavior, big tech can exploit this climate by collecting even more and deeper data on user activities. This data is invaluable and will become even more relevant as the world spends more time online.
Understandably, these large tech companies are the economic beneficiaries of this pandemic. However, they are also using the unstable climate to become legislative benefactors. Facebook and Google’s behavior in the last few years contributed to the large techlash, providing a window for incredibly poor legislation to be passed. We are of course referring to the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market and the newly proposed EARN IT Act mentioned above. These legislation are likely to impact privacy for consumers for decades to come. Yet, they are being buried under the constant flood of pandemic news.
Legislative, social, and political heat that had previously been on Facebook is largely growing to be forgotten. Only a few weeks ago, the world was shocked by this tech giant’s poor control over the spread of misinformation, promotion of anti-vaxers, and holocaust deniers. They were also scrutinized for knowingly selling customers’ data to dubious third parties. The focus of all leaders is on the pandemic and the crisis at hand. However, with the lost momentum, we are afraid that large tech companies’ destructive behavior continues to be excused.
Pandemic Over Privacy
To gain control over this pandemic, countries have foregone privacy rights and taken a playbook straight from China. Many are employing digital tracking through an individual’s smartphone to trace infected areas and detect community spread. Coronavirus surveillance has exploded since early February. In Taiwan, the government has given medical institutions full access to people’s smartphones to process travel histories. Hong Kong has mandated tracking wristbands for people arriving from international flights. Belgium and Germany are using anonymized smartphone data to provide a broad overview of how the virus is spreading. The UK and the US are reportedly close to instituting similar measures as the virus continues to spreads in these countries.
Medical professionals trying to save lives with the help of smartphone data is not the issue. Health departments, medical professionals, and hospitals are highly regulated. However, trusting certain governments with unobstructed access to digital rights is the worrisome proposition. Israel is making plans to use its digital anti-terrorism measures to monitor smartphones, headsets, and cameras. The problem with providing these powers to countries such as the US and the UK is that we know they will be taken advantage of.
Stay Informed, Stay Safe and Stay Home
Much of the free world is in quarantine to contain the growing number of infected humans with Coronavirus. This is naturally causing a shift to how we operate as the human race. In the upcoming weeks, governments and large monopolies will take advantage of the urgency of the situation to pass questionable legislation. The news will be buried, but it doesn’t have to. Stay vigilant and stay informed.
Just as we know that Facebook will continue its questionable policies, the U.S. through its DOJ will likely attempt to use a global tragedy as a makeweight to gain access to data that should be off-limits. Please stay safe, sane, practice social distancing, and stay inside for a few weeks. Our health and our privacy will be counting on it.