The world is still in the grip of social isolation measures, and many countries are on almost total lockdown in a bid to tackle the Covid-19 virus. Footfall in main shopping districts around the world is at an all time low. Traffic emissions have fallen drastically and a reduction in industrial output has seen a decrease in air pollutants globally. Access to big data has enabled us to easily record these figures and help us understand the full impact of a global lockdown. In recent weeks, Google and Facebook have been sharing user data with government bodies to try to monitor and stem the movement of people to align with social distancing measures. It was even suggested that Instagram’s location tagging feature may help to track the spread of Covid-19 around the world. There are clear benefits in being able to identify Covid hotspots and use this data for contact tracing and to prevent further infection.

Here in Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has just extended the lockdown period until 5th May. Health experts warn of a potential second wave should restrictions be lifted prematurely. Being able to review movements and corresponding viral outbreaks is surely a boon to governments already facing difficult decisions. Taiwan were able to minimise Covid-19 cases in their country by taking swift action and utilising technology to address the situation. The Taiwanese government integrated data from their national health insurance programme with their immigration database to pinpoint potential cases and trace contacts. Taiwan have had one of the lowest infection rates per capita, showing the power of data analysis. Google and Facebook’s information is no doubt helping in this time of crisis and hopefully other countries can learn a lot from Taiwan’s technological approach to tackling the virus. However, after the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should we be more concerned as to how our personal data is being handled? And who exactly has access to it?

Back in 2010, Mark Zuckerburg stated that “privacy is no longer a social norm”. And in 2020 this still rings true. People willingly offer up their information and data in exchange for convenience – being able to navigate a new city with Google Maps, receive localised restaurant recommendations and personalised shopping suggestions. Susan Barnes referred to this as the “privacy paradox“, highlighting that although many have concerns about privacy issues, their behaviour does not reflect those concerns. We often know what the correct data protection measures are, but our actions run contrary to privacy recommendations.

It is often during times of crisis that issues like privacy and data protection can be swept under the rug. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US government famously ramped up surveillance and compromised human rights, as this was a time of unprecedented fear and confusion. We are again in familiar territory with Covid-19 and data being utilised by the government right now needs to be managed effectively and transparently. According to a recent article for the New York Times “Ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later.” The average smartphone user may not give much thought to whether or not they are being tracked, but rest assured, we are all part of one dataset or another.

Already privacy violations stemming from big data are being unearthed on a grand scale. In December 2019, the New York Times published an exposé on the use of location data, reviewing a dataset of over 50 billion location pings from 12 million US citizens. The findings were troubling, suggesting that our data is being used for far more than we think. Marketing and advertising companies, banks and real estate agents are primary buyers for this data and utilise it to inform their business practises. From measuring footfall in shops to gauging the effectiveness of a billboard ad, the numbers guide every decision. But what’s the harm right? The NY Times researchers stated that the anonymised data was easily identified as location pings clearly revealed home addresses and places of employment. The writers were able to locate and contact several people off the back of their data points, demonstrating how easy it can be to uncover an individual among the encryptions. In the event of a data breach, this could pose a very real security risk as a dataset can predict a person’s weekday travel route to and from work. Despite these shocking revelations, the vast majority of users remain blissfully unaware of the consequences of sharing their location on a innocuous weather app.

The big tech companies will capitalise on the Covid-19 crisis and their data will certainly be an asset in the coming months. But we cannot lose sight of past indiscretions and the potential for misuse. The 2020 US Election is fast approaching and echoes of the Cambridge Analytica scandal still resound. Initiatives such as Facebook’s Data for Good could be a red herring at a time when the company’s data privacy practises should be under increased scrutiny. The site offers public access to a number of large scale data sets being used by NGOs to inform vital humanitarian work. This is an impactful programme and the website paints a picture of how effective Facebook data can be. This sort of transparency should be standard and companies should be able to provide a platform that indicates the exact owners of individual datasets, the projects they inform and the outcomes. Users could then be alerted and given the option to withdraw their information, should they so choose.

There is no denying that location tracking can do some good but there has to be limits. China’s social credit system shows the dangers of data profiling and a looming threat to civil liberties. Regulation is key for moving forward and the success of GDPR laws shows that sizeable change is possible in the realm of data privacy. In a recent interview, Adam Schwartz, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation spoke of data policy when it comes to Covid monitoring. “We ask three questions about proposals to use data about people in new ways in response to COVID-19; Would it be effective? Would it excessively intrude on our liberties? Are there sufficient safeguards?” These are the questions we need to be asking.

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