Privacy vs safety – the COVID-19 impact on a debate of our time

privacy vs safety
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The privacy vs safety debate has been rumbling along for some time. COVID-19, surprisingly perhaps, has brought the issue to the forefront.

Why? Well, before the current situation it was not tied up with a life and death situation.

Like all debates there are two clearly defined trains of thought.

On the one hand, Governments say that using technology and people’s data will help them manage the emergency and defeat COVID-19.

On the other, data protection legislation (long in the making) says that data is ours to allow others to use, so it is our choice.

Governments, particularly Governments with a harsher view of how their people should behave, are rushing through emergency legislation to give them powers to keep track of their people and visitors. Some, France in particular, is asking Google and Facebook to relax their rules on privacy to facilitate more effective tracing.

How draconian and dictatorial the measures are changes from regime to regime. Some countries in the former Soviet Union for example have decided that they can hack into citizens’ phones and know where they are every minute of the day. This has been dubbed a ‘spying law’ by some politicians and observers.

A similar law in Germany was stopped by the opposition party.

In Taiwan, a harsh but effective set of rules has been put in place. Visitors must fill in a questionnaire and upload it. If authorities think there is cause for concern these people must self isolate (at their own cost) for more than 14 days and (here is the draconian bit) this is enforced by an electronic fence (which presumably beeps in some control room somewhere if the fence is broken).

As such, the privacy vs safety debate just heated up. Companies are pitching in too. Google recently ‘helped’ Governments understand how effective their quarantine measures were by releasing data on the locations of their ‘customers’. This, in turn, reignited the debate about how much data these giants have on us – and most weren’t saying.

An important point, of course, is that before COVID-19, the privacy vs safety debate did not involve Governments in the same way it does now. And when it is a case of Government vs your privacy then we all know who is going to win. And when they say it is in the public interest and it will help save lives, you would be hard pushed to argue.

The privacy vs safety debate will not go away when this is all over but it has certainly had a high profile few weeks.

The question is what happens then. Will the ‘spying laws’ remain quietly in place for the foreseeable future for ‘our own good’ or will they be relaxed and we can go back to debating whether our data is ours to control, or not.

Sadly, there will be no prizes for guessing the answer to that.

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