Officials weigh virus surveillance options

London (CNN)Spit into a cup when you land in an airport, and your DNA is stored. Every phone in every city talks to every other nearby device, their exchanges floating somewhere in the ether. Cross-border travel is enabled only by governments sharing data about millions of private movements.

These are all possible visions of a future that the coronavirus pandemic has rushed on us — decades of change effected, sometimes it feels, in just weeks. But a lurch into an even more intense era of mass data-collection — the vast hoovering up of who went near whom and when, who is healthy to travel, and even scraps of personal DNA languishing in databases — appears to be on the verge of becoming the new reality.
Will this grave new world intensify our desire for privacy, or extinguish what little left of it we had?

    It took the attacks of September 11, 2001 to shove aside the previous decade’s phobia of mass surveillance, and usher in an era where many of us imagined the state was probably skimming our emails, in exchange for keeping us safe from terror.
    Over the next 15 years, billions of people agreed to a tacit deal where Facebook or Google were permitted to learn a staggering amount about them in exchange for free access to messaging apps, news, and shared pictures of a baby dancing, or a dog driving a car.
    China is installing surveillance cameras outside people's front doors ... and sometimes inside their homes

    Eventually, that mutated into the heights exemplified by Cambridge Analytica — private companies hoovering up the online lives of tens of millions in order to try to sway elections.
    But the challenge presented by Covid-19 — and the urgent need to trace contacts and movements — is of another scale of intimacy. South Korea located over 10,000 cellphones near the latest outbreak and texted them to suggest a coronavirus test. The UK government has toyed with a centralized database of movements and health records, secured by government cyber-spies, able potentially to see who has been sick and who they have been near. Russia and many others have issued QR codes. China is putting surveillance cameras right outside people’s doors.
    Technology is again claiming the mantle of the savior we need to fill the gap between where we are now, and the new, knowledgeable and capable place we need to be. Apple and Google are again offering solutions government cannot — embedding into our phones anonymous methods of knowing who we may have infected and when. We are already seeing the extraordinary potential of these technologies in limiting the spread of the disease. But if they become ubiquitous, where does this new scrutiny end? When does it stop being helpful? Will we look back at 2020 as the moment privacy finally evaporated?

    ‘Mission creep’ feared

    Few privacy advocates doubt the seismic nature of this moment. Some experts fear mission creep, while others see this as a chance to finally have our laws catch up with the digital age.
    Privacy International called Covid-19’s impact on privacy “unprecedented.”
    “9/11 ushered covert and overt surveillance regimes, many of which were unlawful,” said Edin Omanovic, the campaign group’s advocacy director. The surveillance industry “understands that this is an opportunity comparable to 9/11 in terms of legitimizing and normalizing surveillance. We’ve seen a huge willingness from people to help them as much as possible. However, helping health authorities fight the virus is different to helping security authorities use this moment as an opportunity for a data grab.”
    The way in which technology chooses to adapt to the moment may also define its success after it. The urgency of action after 9/11 — and the things that were done “just for now” that became commonplace and permanent — carry valuable lessons that governments may still choose to ignore. Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers exposed how huge amounts of phone or email data had been hoovered up by governments routinely, leaving some unsure if their democratic way of life was being eroded or protected by their security agencies.
    Wary Germans hate sharing their data. Will they use a Covid-19 tracking app?
    Professor Jon Crowcroft, who pioneered one of the first influenza monitoring mobile apps at Cambridge University in 2011, said governments’ introduction of apps, such as those in the UK, should be explicit about “sunsetting” — the removal of data after a defined period.
    “Just having a clear position on deleting that data after, say, 30 days, when it is clearly of no use for anyone — because contacts will have recovered, epidemiologists will have improved their models — would really help the public trust,” he said.
    Crowcroft fears two areas of “mission creep”: the first being if the app or data is used to enforce isolation on people, and the second in imposing the need for an “immunity certificate” on a person who has the virus antibodies (though the science on this is far from settled).
    But he added that, as we have seen in the past, practicalities may triumph over privacy: we will perhaps be less fascinated by how the apps technically gather and store data, “but will like the idea of being able to get out (to work & socialize) more safely and possibly sooner.”
    It’s the same practical payoff that lured billions into social media; life was made better by platforms that did not appear to ask anything of you, yet created a trillion dollar industry boosted by the commercial and predictive power of observing social media users. Despite growing privacy concerns, some 2.5 billion people use still use Facebook every month.

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    A person wearing a face mask walks outside of a shopping mall in Beijing on March 11.

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    Teachers at the Nagoya International School in Japan conduct an online class for students staying at home as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus.

    Soldiers spray disinfectant throughout a shopping street in Seoul.

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    People wear face masks in New York's Times Square on March 3. New York reported its first case of coronavirus two days earlier.

    A security guard stands on the Shibuya Sky observation deck in Tokyo on March 3.

    US President Donald Trump, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, speaks during a meeting with pharmaceutical executives and the White House coronavirus task force on March 2. Throughout <a href="" target="_blank">the meeting,</a> Trump was hyperfocused on pressing industry leaders in the room for a timeline for a coronavirus vaccine and treatment. But experts at the table -- from the administration and the pharmaceutical industry -- repeatedly emphasized that a vaccine can't be rushed to market before it's been declared safe for the public.

    Medical staff stand outside a hospital in Daegu, South Korea, on March 1.

    Health care workers transfer a patient at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, on March 1. The long-term care facility is linked to confirmed coronavirus cases.

    British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a London laboratory of the Public Health England National Infection Service.

    Tomoyuki Sugano, a professional baseball player on the Yomiuri Giants, throws a pitch in an empty Tokyo Dome during a preseason game on February 29. Fans have been barred from preseason games to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

    Commuters wearing masks make their way to work during morning rush hour at the Shinagawa train station in Tokyo on February 28.

    Medical staff transport a coronavirus patient within the Red Cross hospital in Wuhan on February 28.

    Inter Milan plays Ludogorets in an empty soccer stadium in Milan, Italy, on February 27. The match <a href="" target="_blank">was ordered to be played behind closed doors</a> as Italian authorities continue to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak.

    A bank clerk disinfects banknotes in China's Sichuan province on February 26.

    A child wearing a protective face mask rides on a scooter in an empty area in Beijing.

    A Catholic devotee wears a face mask as he is sprinkled with ash during Ash Wednesday services in Paranaque, Philippines, on February 26.

    People disinfect Qom's Masumeh shrine in Tehran, Iran, on February 25.

    A worker in Daegu stacks plastic buckets containing medical waste from coronavirus patients on February 24.

    Paramedics carry a stretcher off an ambulance in Hong Kong on February 23.

    People attend a professional soccer match in Kobe, Japan, on February 23. To help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, the soccer club Vissel Kobe <a href="" target="_blank">told fans not to sing, chant or wave flags</a> in the season opener against Yokohama FC.

    A team of volunteers disinfects a pedestrian bridge in Bangkok, Thailand.

    A man rides his bike in Beijing on February 23.

    Hospital personnel in Codogno, Italy, carry new beds inside the hospital on February 21. The hospital is hosting some people who have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

    Doctors look at a CT scan of a lung at a hospital in Xiaogan, China, on February 20.

    A sales clerk wears a mask as she waits for customers at a hat shop in Beijing on February 18.<a href="" target="_blank"> </a>Small companies that help drive China's economy <a href="" target="_blank">are worried about how much damage</a> the coronavirus outbreak will cause to business.

    Buses carrying American passengers arrive at the Haneda Airport in Tokyo on February 17. The passengers <a href="" target="_blank">were leaving the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship</a> to be repatriated to the United States.

    A medical worker rests at the isolation ward of the Red Cross hospital in Wuhan on February 16.

    Authorities watch as the Westerdam cruise ship approaches a port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on February 13. Despite having no confirmed cases of coronavirus on board, the Westerdam was refused port by four other Asian countries before being allowed to dock in Cambodia.

    A worker has his temperature checked on a shuttered commercial street in Beijing on February 12.

    Beds are made in the Wuhan Sports Center, which has been converted into a temporary hospital.

    A child rides a scooter past a police officer wearing protective gear outside the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong on February 11. More than 100 people evacuated the housing block after four residents in two different apartments tested positive for the coronavirus.

    Relatives of quarantined passengers wave at the Diamond Princess cruise ship as it leaves a port in Yokohama, Japan, to dump wastewater and generate potable water. Dozens of people on the ship <a href="" target="_blank">were infected with coronavirus.</a>

    The Deneway branch of the County Oak Medical Centre is closed amid coronavirus fears in Brighton, England, on February 11. Several locations in and around Brighton were quarantined after <a href="" target="_blank">a man linked to several coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom</a> came into contact with health-care workers and members of the public.

    A police officer, left, wears protective gear as he guards a cordon at the Hong Mei House in Hong Kong on February 11.

    A worker wears a protective suit as he waits to screen people entering an office building in Beijing on February 10. China's workforce is <a href="" target="_blank">slowly coming back to work</a> after the coronavirus outbreak forced many parts of the country to extend the Lunar New Year holiday by more than a week.

    Chinese President Xi Jinping has his temperature checked during an appearance in Beijing on February 10.

    Photojournalists wearing face masks take photos of a bus carrying passengers after they disembarked from the World Dream cruise ship in Hong Kong on February 9. <a href="" target="_blank">More than 5,300 people were quarantined on two cruise ships</a> off Hong Kong and Japan.

    People participating in a Lunar New Year Parade in New York City hold signs reading, "Wuhan stay strong!" on February 9.

    A shopper walks past empty shelves at a grocery store in Hong Kong on February 9. China's Ministry of Commerce <a href="" target="_blank">encouraged supermarkets and grocery stores</a> to resume operations as the country's voluntary or mandatory quarantines began to take an economic toll.

    A worker wearing a protective suit uses a machine to disinfect a business establishment in Shanghai, China, on February 9.

    Workers in protective gear walk near the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Yokohama on February 7.

    People in Hong Kong attend a vigil February 7 for <a href="" target="_blank">whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang. </a>Li, 34, died in Wuhan after contracting the virus while treating a patient.

    A woman grieves while paying tribute to Li at Li's hospital in Wuhan on February 7.

    The Anthem of the Seas cruise ship is seen docked at the Cape Liberty Cruise Port in Bayonne, New Jersey, on February 7. Passengers were to be screened for coronavirus as a precaution, an official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN.

    A light installation is displayed by striking members of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance and other activists at the Hospital Authority building in Hong Kong on February 7.

    Passengers are seen on the deck of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked at the Yokohama Port on February 7.

    Flight attendants wearing face masks make their way through Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok on February 7.

    Workers check sterile medical gloves at a latex-product manufacturer in Nanjing, China, on February 6.

    A woman wears a protective mask as she shops in a Beijing market on February 6.

    This aerial photo shows the Leishenshan Hospital that is being built in Wuhan to handle coronavirus patients.

    A passenger shows a note from the World Dream cruise ship docked at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on February 5.

    A mask is seen on a statue in Beijing on February 5.

    An ambulance stops at a traffic light in front of the Grand Lisboa Hotel in Macao. The virus turned China's gambling mecca <a href="" target="_blank">into a ghost town.</a>

    A dog in Beijing wears a makeshift mask constructed from a paper cup.

    Striking hospital workers in Hong Kong demand the closure of the border with mainland China on February 4.

    The Diamond Princess cruise ship sits anchored in quarantine off the port of Yokohama on February 4. It arrived a day earlier with passengers feeling ill.

    A medical worker wearing protective gear waits to take the temperature of people entering Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on February 4.

    Medical workers in protective suits help transfer patients to a newly completed field hospital in Wuhan.

    People wearing protective overalls talk outside a Wuhan hotel housing people in isolation on February 3.

    A man stands in front of TV screens broadcasting a speech by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on February 3. Lam said the city would shut almost all border-control points to the mainland.

    A colleague sprays disinfectant on a doctor in Wuhan on February 3.

    Commuters in Tokyo walk past an electric board displaying dismal stock prices on February 3, the first business day after the Chinese New Year. Asia's markets recorded their <a href="" target="_blank">worst day in years</a> as investors finally got a chance to react to the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

    Medical workers move a coronavirus patient into an isolation ward at the Second People's Hospital in Fuyang, China, on February 1.

    Children wear plastic bottles as makeshift masks while waiting to check in to a flight at the Beijing Capital Airport on January 30.

    Passengers in Hong Kong wear protective masks as they wait to board a train at Lo Wu Station, near the mainland border, on January 30.

    A volunteer wearing protective clothing disinfects a street in Qingdao, China, on January 29.

    Nanning residents line up to buy face masks from a medical appliance store on January 29.

    Lyu Jun, left, a member of a medical team leaving for Wuhan, says goodbye to a loved one in Urumqi, China, on January 28.

    A charter flight from Wuhan arrives at an airport in Anchorage, Alaska, on January 28. The US government chartered the plane to bring home US citizens and diplomats from the American consulate in Wuhan.

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in wears a mask to inspect the National Medical Center in Seoul on January 28.

    Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, center, attends a news conference in Hong Kong on January 28. Lam said China will stop individual travelers to Hong Kong while closing some border checkpoints and restricting flights and train services from the mainland.

    Workers at an airport in Novosibirsk, Russia, check the temperatures of passengers who arrived from Beijing on January 28.

    US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar speaks during a news conference about the American public-health response.

    Two residents walk in an empty park in Wuhan on January 27. The city remained on lockdown for a fourth day.

    A person wears a protective mask, goggles and coat as he stands in a nearly empty street in Beijing on January 26.

    Medical staff members bring a patient to the Wuhan Red Cross hospital on January 25.

    People wear protective masks as they walk under Lunar New Year decorations in Beijing on January 25.

    Construction workers in Wuhan begin to work on a special hospital to deal with the outbreak on January 24.

    Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, speaks to reporters on January 24 about <a href="" target="_blank">a patient in Chicago</a> who had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The patient was the second in the United States to be diagnosed with the illness.

    A couple kisses goodbye as they travel for the Lunar New Year holiday in Beijing on January 24.

    Workers manufacture protective face masks at a factory in China's Hubei Province on January 23.

    Shoppers wear masks in a Wuhan market on January 23.

    Passengers are checked by a thermography device at an airport in Osaka, Japan, on January 23.

    People wear masks while shopping for vegetables in Wuhan on January 23.

    A militia member checks the body temperature of a driver in Wuhan on January 23.

    Passengers wear masks as they arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines, on January 23.

    A customer holds boxes of particulate respirators at a pharmacy in Hong Kong on January 23.

    Passengers wear masks at the high-speed train station in Hong Kong on January 23.

    A woman rides an electric bicycle in Wuhan on January 22.

    People in Guangzhou, China, wear protective masks on January 22.

    People go through a checkpoint in Guangzhou on January 22.

    Medical staff of Wuhan's Union Hospital attend a gathering on January 22.

    Health officials hold a news conference in Beijing on January 22.

    ‘Nothing here is inevitable’

    The title of Shoshana Zuboff’s book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” referred to the power and wealth accrued by tech companies who amassed huge amounts of data over the past two decades. She thinks Covid-19 could mark a moment not of the continued, inevitable dominance of these giants, but instead of people reasserting their rights in the way they should have done when these new online hyperpowers emerged.
    “9/11 compromised our democracies in relationship to tech companies and their growing capabilities,” she said. “We ended 2019 with people around the world in the process of waking up and appreciating the fact that surveillance capitalists have amassed these immense empires of unaccountable power. They have been given a free pass to do whatever they wanted: to steal our experience secretly, and combine that data to predict our behavior, then sell those predictions and become trillion-dollar companies.”
    This is a moment for better-informed societies to create the legal framework they’ve lacked to master the power of technology for their benefits, she said. Public health has always had an element of surveillance and tracking in it to monitor the spread of a disease, even before big-tech came along, she added.
    Technology companies can help fight Covid-19
    “For people who are charged with tracking disease, surveillance systems are very important,” she said, adding that we should permit some of our movements to be tracked for the good of common public health, a sacrifice of our privacy similar to how we choose to vaccinate children. But, she argued, new hi-tech surveillance has blighted that old, desperately needed health monitoring as being from the same intrusive fold.
    “What’s happened now is that we’re so fearful of the other kind of surveillance that these things are conflated,” she said. “We’re hitting this wall of mistrust, because we have failed over the last 20 years to create the institutions, legislation and regulatory paradigms that allow us to trust in this new invasive world.”
    Zuboff said the current vacuum in leadership in some Western countries meant tech giants could try to insert themselves into the problem as the only and obvious solution. “The dominant surveillance capitalists want us to believe and feel that in the vacuum that our leaders — certainly in the UK — have left in their wake, they are the ones to come and fill it.”

      But the pandemic could also present an opportunity to re-assert — or finally assert — regulation over the new digital age. “Nothing here is inevitable,” she said. “We have a responsibility to society as well as to the privacy of individuals. And we can do both. The answer to that question is entirely up to us.”
      Yet, like 9/11, the moment is one of panic, coping, and rush for a return to normality, and less of a nuanced discussion about how the crisis can become an opportunity to fix the wrongs of the past. Without that discussion, our new normals may become a world in which a little bit more of our inner selves is out there in the ether, at risk of misuse.
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