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Privacy in the time of Corona

People are classified into 3 colours, red, green and yellow. Banners across crowded spots in the city remind everyone of the rules: “Green code, travel freely. Red or yellow, report immediately.”

No, I am not quoting Orwell’s 1984. This is China in 2020, where the government, to combat the coronavirus pandemic, has instructed people to use AliPay to find out their assigned color code — green, yellow or red — that indicates their health status. This colour code, whose rules have not been made public yet, determines whether someone should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces.

The global trade-off between privacy and public health

The Global Privacy Assembly, a group of more than 130 data protection authorities, has noted changes surrounding data privacy brought on by the pandemic in at least 27 countries. South Korea and Singapore have used cell phone location information to identify possible infections. South Korean residents have been receiving emergency text messages from authorities, alerting them to the movements of local people with COVID-19 - a typical message containing the infected person’s age and gender, and a detailed log of their movements down to the minute with the time and names of businesses they visited. To prevent people who have been asked to self-quarantine from leaving their apartments, the Russian authorities are using facial recognition technology in the city to catch any offenders. Israel has turned to a previously undisclosed database of location data secretly gathered to combat terrorism to track infections. The US Government is working closely with tech companies including Google, Facebook, Clearview AI, and Palantir to figure out what kinds of data and tools can be leveraged to aid public health.

Is India far behind?

Closer to home, the state governments are relying more on offline measures. While the Government of India has launched a coronavirus risk-tracking app called ‘Corona Kavach which uses a person’s location to assess whether they are in the high-risk geographical zone or not, people suspected of having coronavirus have received hand stamps at airports across the country. Lists of home-quarantined persons who have been advised home isolation or self-quarantine have been going viral on WhatsApp and social media in cities like Nagpur, Pune, and Rajasthan. In Delhi and Chandigarh, posters have been glued outside the homes of suspects mentioning their names, quarantine period and the number of people in the family who have been asked to remain in isolation. The posters start with ‘COVID-19: Do not visit. Home under quarantine’, and it is undersigned by the magistrate of the respective districts under which the suspects belong. The Mohali district administration has published suspect details on its website, including the names of the suspect and his or her family members, along with their phone numbers and residential addresses.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

The benefits are evident. Speedy access to high-quality data is important in predicting the trajectory of the virus. One of the leading forecast labs in the US is pooling together web-browsing behavior and social-media activity to help the government ramp up its testing capacity and determine appropriate interventions. Real-time travel, retail behavior as well as anonymized health records is likely to greatly improve such predictions.

While one can understand the concern around these moves which have been widely endorsed by the public, where does one draw the line? Should fundamental rights be suspended in an emergency like this?

These measures have already started creating a social stigma around coronavirus in India - consequences include people avoiding places that an infected person has visited, even though the places have been closed and cleaned since then. Excessive disclosure of private information is also likely to exacerbate the situation with people with symptoms to avoid testing. There is also a high risk of insidious use of this data by authorities - Israel's PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been criticized for using mass surveillance to track dissidents under the pretext of fighting corona. Historian Yuval Noah Harari even accused him of trying to create a dictatorship. Commentators in China and Russia have raised similar concerns. China is yet to make the colour assignment rules public, and there’s no clear way to make your code turn green if it is red or yellow.

One of the key concerns is whether these measures are just for the period of the coronavirus crisis. The people in the USA have faced a similar situation after 9/11 to fight terrorism and they have never returned to the previous normal. Lawmakers must treat intrusions on privacy in the public interest as exceptions rather than norms, with clear guidelines on the use of any information collected during and after the crisis.

An afterthought

It is quite ironic that our modern conception of civil liberties (including our right to privacy) which developed following one of humanity’s worst crises, the Second World War - is under threat to be undone by the greatest crisis since then.

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About the Author: The post is written by our EZPP Partner Abhirup Roy with relevant edits from our editorial team. Abhirup is a graduate from IIM Ahmedabad and works with Zolo Stays.


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