The right to privacy (and with it the right to express a minority opinion) is often endangered by legislation that is introduced without due process during times of war or crisis.
And it is against this backdrop that activists, journalists, academics and others began to worry that during this pandemic we are, with- out really considering the consequences, giving away our privacy.
Governments around the world have often responded to the Covid-19 situation with diktats that remove an element of democratic governance, or threaten hard-fought-for freedoms, with very little opportunity for public debate.
India’s Justice H.R. Khanna, among others, famously warned that governments use a crisis to ignore the rule of law. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
This feels like wisdom that’s fitting for the current fractured moment.
In Turkey, there are independent thinkers who believed that home was the last refuge where they could criticise the government or talk about a difference of opinion from the mainstream. The introduction of the Life Fits Home app could mean a severe erosion of that private space, as once they have input their ID numbers, the government will know exactly who is where, and with whom.
As Kaya Genç outlines in his article on p50, the question is: can they trust an autocratic state which could save their lives via contact-tracing not to come after them later for political reasons?
This is similar to the question being asked in Hong Kong by those who protest against the ongoing erosion of the freedom which ensured it was a very different place to live from China in the last two decades.
During the pandemic, there have been discussions about the dangers of sharing personal information with the government, and one Hong Kong citizen we interviewed for this issue outlined why.
“Of course, we’re willing to do what we can as a collective to stop the spread of Covid-19,” she said. “But the point is, we have no trust in the government now. That’s why I don’t want to trade my information with the government in return for a few face masks.”
Another said people were worried about an app that they were required to download if they left the city and wanted to return, asking: “Who knows what they’ll do with our data?”
Some governments have put in place legal checks and balances to give people more confidence, and to offer assurances that data will not be used for other means.
In South Korea, a law was amended after the 2015 Mers outbreak to give authorities extensive powers to demand phone location data, police CCTV footage and the records of corporations and individuals to trace contacts and track infections.
As Timandra Harkness outlines on p11, that same law specifies that “no information shall be used for any purpose other than conducting tasks related to infectious diseases under this act, and all the information shall be destroyed without delay when the relevant tasks are completed”.
In Australia, legislation restricts who may access data gathered by a Covid-19 app, how it may be used and how long it may be kept.
Other countries have done much less to offer legitimacy and transparency to the data- gathering processes in which they are asking the public to participate.
In the UK, for instance, there has been no sign of legislation outlining any restrictions on how data captured by its track and trace system, or expected Covid-19 app, will be restricted from other use, or even stopped from being sold on to third parties.
Requests to ask the public to add apps such as these come at the same time as we see rising numbers of drones being used to invade our private spaces, and potentially to track our movements or actions.
We also see a dramatic, mostly unregulated, increase in the use of facial recognition around the world, again taking a hammer to our rights to privacy, and ramping up surveillance.
US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in the 1920s of those who wrote the early laws of his land: “They knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies, and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”
Those who fear their privacy is under threat, and who worry about other consequences of being tracked and traced, are unlikely to feel confident in a society that takes away basic freedoms during times of crisis and does not put dramatic changes into place via a parliamentary process. Governments should take note that this threatens pathways to safety.