The coronavirus pandemic has had a massive impact on almost all aspects of our lives, and it has certainly changed our relationship with technology. Social distancing measures meant to flatten the curve led to people all over the world turning their homes into their new offices and classrooms for their kids.
While we’re fortunate to have the technological tools that made this possible, it’s clear that our efforts to adapt to life during the pandemic immediately began to infringe on our privacy and further strengthened undesirable power dynamics.
With so many people using videoconferencing tools like Zoom for remote work and education, it’s not surprising that there would be some privacy concerns. The Federal Trade Commission was even compelled to issue guidelines to ed-tech companies in response to concerns that data collected from children could be misused for commercial benefits.
Governments and health organizations are also considering how to use tech tools like tracing apps to track and predict the spread of the virus. This raises concerns over how the health data is to be protected and if these measures will lead to warrantless surveillance. You can read more about internet freedom in countries around the world and find out how the pandemic has affected digital rights.
Whenever people’s freedom and privacy are restricted, they have every reason to be concerned and want some sort of guarantee that the measures being taken are temporary, proportionate, and necessary. The risks of this pandemic having long-term negative consequences on our privacy are all too real.
Power Disparities in the Digital Age
Since the rise of big tech, power disparities have been a source of concern. Tech companies may argue that if consumers are not happy with their services, they can simply not use them, but this has long stopped being a viable option.
First of all, when a particular tool, platform, or service becomes dominant, opting out of using it is much like opting out from being a full participant in society. It means losing access to career opportunities, education, and essential information. Once most people around you are using a certain tech tool, not using it puts you at a competitive disadvantage.
Some platforms like Google and Facebook are impossible to avoid. Google trackers are spread all over the internet, while Facebook creates shadow profiles on people who never had an account.
The “techlashes” we’ve seen in recent years are natural responses to numerous privacy abuses. The same people who were once seen as good guys in hoodies offering services that would improve our lives have now become data predators endangering democracy and our basic rights.
As we mentioned before, social distancing measures taken during the pandemic meant we had to use more tech tools for social interaction, work, education, medical services, and entertainment. As big tech’s stocks continued to rise, any lingering illusion that we can opt out from using their services has dissipated.
It’s no longer just the average netizen that uses digital tools and services. Businesses, education institutions, health providers, and even governments rely on them. Still, in the end, it’s ordinary people that are most vulnerable. For example, the pandemic and remote work has increased surveillance from employers over employees, and students have also had to deal with more scrutiny. This leads to further abuses of power.
If we allow our personal data to be treated like a commodity, there will always be a risk of misuse.
What Can We Do?
As the pandemic subsides, the goal would be to preserve the positive aspects of increased digitalization while mitigating threats and reclaiming lost ground. There are considerable pitfalls on this path.
There’s a chance that this increased surveillance will become part of the “new normal” because people will be so eager to regain some of the things they lost through social distancing measures that they will be willing to give up their data in exchange.
Since tech companies have been developing software to assist governments and health providers in collecting information related to the virus, they have become more influential. We need to keep in mind that this data can also be used for commercial gain, resulting in profiling people that will subsequently be bombarded with tailored online advertisement.
We’re so used to these ads that you may not think much about this potential consequence but imagine what effect it would have if low-income people who have already been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic get bombarded with targeted ads for high-interest loans. This would amplify and extend the economic impact the pandemic has on our society as a whole.
Furthermore, history has shown us that whenever governments begin collecting data on citizens, this data becomes an asset that won’t be easily relinquished. After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed the Patriot Act, and it took us eleven years to realize how much the government has expanded its surveillance over its citizens. Now we’re in a similar situation, and nobody can say when exactly the pandemic will be over.
But there are also reasons for optimism. Since people have become more suspicious of tech companies, they’ve started to become more demanding in terms of transparency and security. And in such situations, it’s good for people to take matters into their own hands to keep their information private. With that being said, privacy is a basic right, so we should all demand support from our governments in defending this right in the post-pandemic future.
The good news is that governments will already be motivated by the national security risk that comes with the lack of privacy inherent in current tech business models, and regulators are actively pursuing ways to limit Big Tech’s power. We can see that the antitrust lawsuits against tech giants like Google and Facebook. YouTube and Amazon have also been under investigation for the way they handle user data.
As long as we continue to make our demands heard, we could see some positive legislative reforms in the next few years, which will have a ripple effect outside the United States. Nobody has a crystal ball but what we need to keep in mind is that using technology to overcome the challenges brought upon by the pandemic doesn’t mean we need to accept long-term harm to our right to privacy.