Privacy Advocates Are Sounding Alarms Over Coronavirus Surveillance

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Please consider using a different web browser for better experience. Please enable JavaScript in your browser for a better site experience. Privacy Advocates Are Sounding Alarms Over Coronavirus Surveillance Mar 23, 2020 at 21:00 UTC Updated Mar 23, 2020 at 21:04 UTC Photo by Dennis Kummer on Unsplash Benjamin Powers Privacy Advocates Are Sounding Alarms Over Coronavirus Surveillance As the coronavirus pandemic spread across Asia, nations leveraged significant surveillance networks to trace the virus’s spread and forced governments around the world to weigh the trade-offs of public health and privacy for millions of people. Now, recent reports say the US government is in talks with controversial surveillance and data gathering companies to enlist them in addressing the coronavirus crisis, signalling an escalation in the use of surveillance tools. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that the CDC has enlisted Palantir, a data scraping and modeling behemoth that works with law enforcement and other government security agencies, to model outbreak data and Clearview AI, the facial recognition startup that acquired billions of facial images through public web scraping, have been in contact with state governments about tracking people who came in contact with infected individuals. See also: In Fight Against Coronavirus, Governments Face Trade-Offs on Privacy The reports caused alarm among privacy advocates, who, while noting the need to address the public health crisis, worry about the companies that are being pulled in to help. “During times of crisis, civil liberties are most at risk because the normal balance of safety versus privacy becomes tilted toward safety,” says Michele Gillman, a privacy lawyer and fellow at Data & Society, a think tank that studies the social impact of data-centric tech. “A major concern is that new surveillance technologies deployed during the coronavirus crises will become the ‘new normal’ and permanently embedded in everyday life after the crisis passes. This can result in ongoing mass surveillance of the population without adequate transparency, accountability or fairness,” she said. There is a precedent for this, and from not long ago. The 9/11 terrorist attacks led not only to an expansion of surveillance cameras and networks across the US, but also legislation like the Patriot Act , which removed legislative guardrails to government surveillance and decreased transparency, and accelerated the NSA’s intrusive and massive surveillance capabilities revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden . Despite the public backlash against the NSA’s practices, lawmakers have yet to de-authorize it.
“Ambiguous policies around what happens to the data collected after its intended use... rip away control and transparency for people.” “Many of the directives implemented as part of the Patriot Act led to the abuses that were exposed by Snowden,” says Steven Waterhouse, the CEO and Co-founder of Orchid Labs, a privacy focused VPN company. “What abuses will we learn about later, after this crisis has passed? What legislation will be rammed through the government during this time of crisis?” Things that may now be considered mundane, such as an abundance of surveillance cameras, being subjected to full body screens at the airport, and the idea that we are constantly being observed, weren’t always the case. Often, public crises provide opportunities for surveillance architecture to move forward and become normalized fixtures of society. And open up commercial opportunities for tech companies to provide new and ever more intrusive ways of tracking individuals. That’s the case with Clearview AI, a facial recognition startup that claims to have scraped billions of public images off the web and created software that can identify a face within seconds. It markets itself to law enforcement within the US but also targeted authoritarian regimes around the world with records of human rights abuses as part of a rapid expansion plan, according to documents obtained by Buzzfeed News . The company has also overstated the effectiveness of its technology , claiming police departments solved cases after using it when that was not the case. The company now faces legal challenges from other companies, and state governments. “Clearview has a pretty consistent pattern of not being forthcoming about information but also intentionally misleading their clients in my view,” says Clare Garvie, senior associate at the Georgetown University Law Center's Center on Privacy and Technology. “Whatever means the government implements or various state and local governments implement to combat the spread of this virus must be the least intrusive means possible. What Clearview AI is proposing is not the least intrusive means possible.” Extensive research shows facial recognition is equally accurate on everyone. See also: Mass Surveillance Threatens Personal Privacy Amid Coronavirus “Facial recognition is notoriously inaccurate for w...