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Will COVID change the way we view data and privacy?

By Emma Warrillow

As COVID-19 has permeated the globe, it has become clear that data availability has become of vital importance in this pandemic. Tests, cases, fatalities, and recoveries are counted and reported for nearly every country around the world – and data visualizations are studied closely to determine success in “flattening the curve.”

The elevation of the importance of data in the eyes of the public may have lasting impacts on the role data plays in our lives – and on how we value privacy.

Over the past months, in countries around the world, data on an individual’s body temperature, past contacts, and movements have been collected freely – and offered up willingly by citizens. Had you asked people last October whether this would be data they would share with authorities, the answer in Western democracies would have been a resounding “no.” But share they have.

And it is likely to continue. It is also well known that countries where contact tracing has been thorough (for example, South Korea) have been most successful in containment. As we move beyond the acute phase of the pandemic, contact tracing apps that leverage our cellphones - and technologies like Bluetooth and Blockchain have been cited as keys to moving forward. Many regions have announced plans to introduce them, and Apple and Google are co-operating on changes to their operating systems that will enable their phones to support tracing. It has been reported that an Oxford University survey found that just over 73% of people in the UK would be likely to install one.

The concept of an “Immunity Passport” has also been discussed in many regions; it is not hard to imagine employers requiring such a document for employees to return to a workplace. Giving employers access to health information has always been fraught with concern; anecdotally it appears, however, that most people would be willing to be tested in exchange for being allowed to resume their normal activities.

Will this willingness to be tracked and provide personal data translate to more acceptance in commercial use? I suspect it will.

In late March, a video circulated showing the impact of spring break travel. It illustrated how cell phone data tracking could allow the government authorities to plot the movement of individuals over time. The results were incredibly revealing – and, for many people, so was the capability.

To be certain, the revelation of what is possible will fuel some people to push for more privacy restrictions, and to also ensure their own cell phone location data is locked down. Yet, for most, by the time things return to “normal,” this type of data will have become such a fixture of their everyday lives that it will be a non-issue.

For many “the horse has left the barn” when it comes to privacy; people have accepted that they are now being tracked. In the coming months, will consumers insist Apple and Google remove the new functionality that supported contact tracing? I suspect not. Will commercial entities find ways to leverage it? Without a doubt.

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