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Containing The Spread Of COVID-19 Has Placed Data Privacy On Second Priority

To ensure the safety of citizens by tracking movements in an effort to contain the virus and flatten the curve, the definition of privacy seems to have changed at a time like this.

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While we were still in 2019, the world was quite particular about giving out their personal data and being aware of where it is used. With China reporting its first victim to coronavirus towards the end of 2019, priorities began to change. China and Russia already have been using mass surveillance systems which sparked a debate as to where the world is headed. Very recently, India has also been seeking data from technology companies but only to ensure that citizens are staying home and practicing social distancing. 

Tech giants like Google and Apple are already known to be collecting personal data from users for marketing and advertising purposes. The same companies are now acquiring location data, aggregating it and providing it to government and health authorities. Data was important and it was seen significantly crucial for marketing purposes but now, it proves to be crucial for the safety of individuals as well. 

Privacy advocates are not very happy with this development. 

‘Quarantine Lists’ giving personal information

Privacy advocates across the world have raised a major concern over how coronavirus has led to the use of people’s data and nobody is minding it. There have been “quarantine lists” that have been put up on official websites by districts affected by the virus the most. Mumbai, Ajmer, Mohali, Nagpur, Delhi and Odisha are the ones that have put up these lists. 

For the purpose of information and alerting people about persons who are quarantined, the list doesn’t seem too bad. However, under pressure from societies, the list is also providing personal details of the individual such as phone numbers and residential addresses. This may be an effort in the direction of containing the spread of COVID-19 but there are also miscreants who could use this information for ulterior motives. 

Aarogya Sethu- a contact tracing app by the government

Just a week back, a contact tracing app called Aarogya Setu was launched by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology which requires a user to keep their location and Bluetooth on at all times. The app collects data of individuals that have been in contact with an infected person and provide it to the government. 

Their privacy policy makes it very clear that this information won’t be sold to third parties and will remain with the government only. 

The app is a great way to contain the virus even better and keep individuals alert on who they are coming in contact with. 

Mass surveillance during a time of a pandemic is needless to be a major worry and in fact, people will want to be safe when it concerns their lives. 

However, after the pandemic is over, would this data sharing become okay? 

In India, there was a movement a few years back that highlighted the right to privacy as a fundamental right. The controversy over Aadhar and businesses using personal data for advertising is still fresh in the minds of people. Apart from this, the world has never taken so kindly to data breaches like when Facebook was snooping and also admitting to some data breached by hackers last year. Facebook-owned WhatsApp was also attacked by Pegasus spyware last year that hacked into accounts of journalists, activists, lawyers, etc.

To take this into account, just last year the cabinet ministry gave a nod to bring up the Personal Data Protection Bill in parliament for further discussion.

Some privacy experts still urge the need to address the right to privacy post the pandemic and suggest it would ideal for the government to hand in the tools used for acquiring data once this is over. Compromising on privacy for public health is fine only when there is an either/or situation. 

The risk of cybercrime

It is an obvious threat that hangs over not only the government’s head but also ours. As everyone is forced to work from home, the possibility of protected and secure LANs is low. This means our personal and professional data is at a risk at all times. Cybercriminals usually choose a time of vulnerability to attack and what a better time than a pandemic? Data privacy concerns in this regard will also see a change. 

Concluding…

There might be a major shift in the definition of privacy after we tackle the pandemic effectively. Since the timeline of overcoming this pandemic is ambiguous, it is best that we continue to practice our small efforts in ensuring data safety such as installing anti-virus, choosing what personal data to provide and not misusing any data that is available to you. 

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