Professor James‘ classes are always inspiring making us to think out the box. During one of these classes, James opened our eyes to the amount of data that is being generated at an alarming rate due to the coronavirus outbreak. This discussion made me think about if our private data is safe and how much is legal the government taking our information with the excuse of protecting us. In this article, I try to develop my opinion about this matter.

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The numbers around the coronavirus crisis are enormous. Up until the writing of this text, the amount of cases confirmed of COVID-19 is more than 1,8 Million worldwide. The total deaths have surpassed 113,000 victims globally where countries from Europe (Italy, Spain, France, and United Kingdom) show up at the top of the list. China, the epicenter of this outbreak at the beginning of this year and the first country to start a battle against COVID-19, was on the top of the rank of cases for long weeks. Currently, China ranks seventh among countries with the highest number of confirmed cases, and they have stopped quarantine and have begun to try to resume their daily lives.

Since March of 2020, the world has seen the COVID-19 spread fast among diverse nations. The virus does not look for race, religion, political opinion, or income. Its high spread power affects everyone who has been in contact with an infected person. A naive cough followed by a common handshake can infect a person. According to Stefan Cunha Ujvari (2011), coughing spreads about 6 milligrams of droplets of saliva, and almost a liter and a half of air at an average speed of 80 km/h. Because of this, competent authorities and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend social distancing and basic hygiene such as washing hands and using a mask to protect the mouth and nose. Stricter examples include the of banning international flights and canceling of events (The New York Times, 2020).

In addition to this, some countries are using technology in the fight against the dissemination of COVID-19 to flatten the curve. This action is important mainly because there is not a health service around the world prepared to support all patients from a pandemic without a disruption of the system. With the goal to keep the population at home, safe, and avoid the increase of the number of contaminated, Spain began a monitoring by drones. Through these drones, the authorities relay warnings to people to vacate public parks and return home  (Business Insider, 2020). That is a great way to protect professionals and civilians.

Ways to monitor citizens has been increasing in different nations. With the excuse to protect the population, companies and countries have collected an uncountable volume of unstructured data from people. The sources are geographic locations from smartphones, photos of streets, conversation by voice call or text, credit card transaction, online purchase, and others. It is global surveillance due to the danger of the novel coronavirus spread.

Although some approaches may appear proportionate, necessary, and legitimate during these unprecedented times, many pose a risk to citizens’ rights to privacy and freedom of expression. From electronic bracelets to track citizens in West Virginia, to the use of surveillance drones in New York, the United States has significantly ramped up initiatives that may pose a threat to citizens’ digital privacy and civil liberties in the US (Top 10 VPN, 2020).

But smartphones are currently the most powerful surveillance tool. A device that was unavailable in past epidemics. Giant technological companies entered in this new market. For example, Apple and Google announced a partnership in which both companies will work together to provide tools that will help track the spread of coronavirus. The companies “announced the publication of what it’s branding COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports, an in-house analysis of the much more granular location data it maps and tracks to fuel its ad-targeting, product development and wider commercial strategy to showcase aggregated changes in population movements around the world” (Lomas, 2020).

Perhaps, as a response to the fear of increasing the total amount of victims from COVID-19, governments and nations have lowered their guard regarding data privacy. “Such efforts clash with people’s expectations of privacy. Now, there’s a compelling reason to collect and share the data; surveillance may save lives. But it will be difficult to draw boundaries around what data is collected, who gets to use it, and how long the collection will continue” (Fussel, 2020). In some regions the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is in open discussion. In Brazil, for example, it would have been implemented next August but, due to the outbreak, the government suggests postponing this application until next year.

Even with all understanding about personal data and how the world developed the GDPR, it is clear that it is necessary to continue to improve this law. This outbreak highlighted how much GDPR is fragile, since European countries, have been forced to go against their own rules on behalf of keeping their citizens safe. Maybe what we have on our hands is a great opportunity to discuss globally what privacy is and what the limits of the state in relation to citizen’s data are. What the world lives in now is a unique experience never seen before that will change the way how humans live. New habits might emerge from this crisis and some of the questions now can be answered by data.

Any decision in the heat of the moment can be a dumb option and might keep humanity in an insecure area. But what the world cannot accept is the data from citizens stocked and managed by private organizations without stronger supervision. Data that was collected for one purpose, might later be used for another, which is the real danger.

***

Professor James Curry, thank you for your selflessness.

Written by Ligia Galvão.

References

Fussell, S (2020). How Surveillance Could Save Lives Amid a Public Health Crisis. Wired. Retrieved on April 10, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/surveillance-save-lives-amid-public-health-crisis/

Lomas, N (2020). Google is now publishing coronavirus mobility reports, feeding off users’ location history. Tech Crunch. Retrieved on April 10, 2020. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/03/google-is-now-publishing-coronavirus-mobility-reports-feeding-off-users-location-history/

Salcedo, A., Yar, S., Cherelus, G. (2020). Coronavirus Travel Restrictions, Across the Globe. The New York Times. Retrieved on April 10, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-travel-restrictions.html

Ujvari, S (2011). Pandemias – A humanidade em risco. Editora Contexto.

Wood, C (2020). Spain’s police are flying drones with speakers around public places to warn citizens on coronavirus lockdown to get inside. Business Insider. Retrieved on April 10, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/spanish-police-using-drones-to-ask-people-stay-at-home-2020-3

Woodhams, S (2020). COVID-19 Digital Rights Tracker. TOP10VPN. Retrieved on April 10, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.top10vpn.com/news/surveillance/covid-19-digital-rights-tracker/

 

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