Coronavirus will change how we view privacy

Both China and Russia have been using their social surveillance systems to track people. CNN reports that the Russian state, using 170,000 cameras, even has caught and fined 200 people for violations.

Coronavirus will change how we view privacy

Eavesdropper Of trackers & men: When Russian premier Vladimir Putin earlier this year released a mass surveillance system, many across the world were worried where this would lead. China had already been doing so, and the results of this were not so comforting. Since, the release of software China, it was claimed, had been using mass surveillance to track dissidents. The system may not be as advanced as it is touted to be, with technology progressing at a fast pace, there is little doubt that it would not reach that stage as well.

And, both China and Russia have got an opportunity in the form of coronavirus spread and lockdowns. Both countries have been using their social surveillance systems to track people. CNN reports that the Russian state, using 170,000 cameras, even has caught and fined 200 people for violations.

But those are not the only two examples, last month The Economist reported that Taiwan had been using contact tracing tools, and people were happy to give up their privacy to stop the spread. South Korea is reported to have developed apps which require registration of citizens and tracking of their location. Singapore launched a similar tech late last month. While the US and the UK both are promising the same kind of technology to track users, India, on Thursday, unveiled an app of its own. Aarogya Setu is expected to follow a similar model.

It shall ask users to voluntarily register on the app and keep their location and Bluetooth on, and if they happen to encounter an infected person, the app shall send a message. What will happen after that is not known, but some states have developed apps for what comes later. Kerala was the first one to allow geo-tracing of infected people to ensure that they do not come out of self-isolation. Karnataka, which is also the IT hub of the country, has followed a different approach. It has been asking people who are home quarantined to upload selfies every hour.

Users have been happy and willing to part with privacy, but privacy advocates have been mulling over scenarios once the lockdowns are over. A lot many people may keep using apps and sharing data with the government. Will governments be ready to cede control and give users back their privacy? While that may not be so easy for authoritarian regimes, even for democracies, it would be challenging to turn the tide.

Technology may be answer. As governments are upgrading their systems for more data, countries can also look forward to turning to technologies that may establish some trust. Blockchain is a good example. Any data repository, created by the government, can use this system. As blockchain requires the consent of all users, citizens can revoke or give permission based on requests. For some services, users can be notified of the nature of access. Like, when a particular data request was made and by which authority.

But a lot more emphasis needs to be given to unbiased AI tools. So that even when an unbiased AI screens through data, what the government receives will be in an anonymised form. This decluttering is undoubtedly tricky, but not impossible.

Some people have been happy to part with privacy; when this ends, governments should be glad to part with controls.

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First published on: 06-04-2020 at 11:25 IST