As the coronavirus pandemic spreads 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 U.S. government is in talks with controversial surveillance and data gathering companies to enlist them in addressing the coronavirus crisis, signaling an escalation in the use of surveillance tools.
Last week the Wall Street Journal reported the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) enlisted Palantir, a data scraping and modeling behemoth that works with law enforcement and other government security agencies, to model outbreak data. Palantir 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.
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 Gilman, 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 in 2001 led to an expansion of surveillance cameras and networks across the U.S. and the Patriot Act, a federal law that removed legislative guardrails to government surveillance and decreased transparency, accelerating the National Security Agency’s intrusive and massive surveillance capabilities later revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Despite the public backlash against the NSA’s practices, lawmakers have yet to de-authorize it.
“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?”