COVID – Could privacy now be vulnerable to the disease?

13-03-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

The COVID pandemic has seen large amounts of technology deployed worldwide to try and contain the spread of the virus. But there is cause for concern with how such technology may be used to track and check individuals while simultaneously breaching their privacy.

How Technology Helped to Contain the Virus

The ongoing COVID pandemic has had a major impact both socially and economically on the world due to government lockdowns. The virus's ability to spread rapidly, combined with the fact that humans have never been observed by humans (meaning that the human body cannot defend itself immediately), created a perfect breeding ground for the pandemic.

As such, many experts around the world pooled their resources together to contain the virus and develop a vaccine. While the vaccine took less than a year to be deployed, technology was developed and deployed in mass to identify individuals who may be carrying COVID and prevent those individuals from spreading it.

Such technology started with simple IR thermometers which would show those who have a fever. The use of thermal monitoring also came into view with the use of IR cameras that can determine individuals' skin temperature as they walk past. However, most COVID cases are asymptomatic meaning that those with the virus show no symptoms at all. Thus, such a method is a poor method for reducing the spread of COVID.

Other methods have been developed and deployed including track-and-trace systems which use wireless technologies in smartphones or dedicated devices to determine the distance between people. If the distance between the two falls within a defined range for more than a defined time, the two devices exchange IDs. If any one person is confirmed to have COVID, the resulting ID is marked on a database, and anyone who was given the key is alerted that they may be infected.

The Privacy Concern Comes to Light

While technology has a remarkable ability to improve daily life, it also has the ability to ruin it. Using temperature to determine if an individual is infected with COVID is an extremely poor method, but the use of centralised tracking systems screams privacy and security issues.

Whenever apps on smartphones track user location and data, there is always some form of outrage regarding gross privacy violations. Yet, when track-and-trace systems were announced globally, many had open arms to the system. Fortunately, such systems proved to be problematic, and as such track-and-trace systems are hardly seen.

However, the introduction of the COVID vaccine has brought about the concept of digital vaccine passports (similar to pet passports) that track individuals who have had the vaccine. While the idea sounds logical (i.e. allow those who have had the vaccine to travel and return to work), it is not without serious flaw. 

The first major issue is that many assume that having the COVID vaccine will prevent said individual from spreading the virus. The truth is that a vaccine will stop an individual from falling ill with the virus (as their body can fight the virus), but they will still be able to carry and spread the virus (albeit not as much without the vaccine). 

The second major issue with such digital passports is that it could be a violation of medical ethics. Simply put, if only those with the vaccine can return to normal, then how do people who refuse the vaccine on either medical (i.e. pregnant), ethical, or personal grounds get the right to return to work or travel? Since anyone can, by rights, refuse medical treatment, the same applies to vaccines. As such, making the vaccine a requirement would dimmish the rights of many individuals.

Has COVID helped society cross a line regarding privacy?

One major concern that many now have is how privacy will change after COVID. Many workplaces and public areas deploy smart technologies such as IR cameras, recognition systems, and remote health monitoring, and all of this is for the “greater good”. However, when COVID eventually comes to a close (the author believes that COVID will become the next seasonal flu and will never go away), will all of the installed tech be removed?

The use of such invasive monitoring equipment may be retained in workplaces to continue monitoring employees' health. The justification of its continued use may be to prevent illnesses from spreading in the workplace. Still, using AI with such technology could allow employers to monitor and make assumptions about employees.

Despite how some may feel, every human being has the right to keep their medical history to themselves with complete confidence (except for diagnosis and health insurance). If an employee discovers they have an illness or condition, they have no obligation to reveal such information to their employer (unless the condition imposes danger to others around them). Furthermore, medical professionals are bound to stringent confidentiality laws, and should they breach these laws, losing their medical license would be the least of their worries.

But the improvements in AI and remote monitoring could give employers the ability to bypass all of these laws and rights, make medical diagnoses of employees using thermal monitors, images, and fingerprint scanners, and then pass these details internally or externally to other businesses. 

Once the pandemic is over and life returns to normal, all of the technology that has helped to control the virus should be removed from service and dismantled. The data provided by COVID gives the world a better chance at impeding the next pandemic. Still, the use of technologies that grossly violate privacy should be immediately rejected by all.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.