For most of human history, the best way to protect personal privacy was to simply stay at home. Lock yourself in your room, or the proverbial closet, and nobody can find out a thing. In little more than a decade, those walls and doors have vanished as digital technology invites us to take large chunks of our lives online. Without ever leaving home (or while scrolling our smartphones in an empty forest), we are now vulnerable to a world of connected spies, data miners, identity usurpers, trackers and any number of other private and public-sector violators of what we hold to be confidential information.
The debate over electronic privacy has been escalating ever since in the West: from Edward Snowden's accusations against the state, to those aimed at commercial tech giants like Facebook and Amazon, to the rogue producers of deep fakes and other nefarious trolls. Meanwhile, authoritarian governments — exposed momentarily to the power of the internet to drive dissent — have quickly taken the upper hand in using digital technology as a tool for control. Yes, until two months ago, the lines on the privacy question seemed drawn quite clearly.
Leave it to a highly contagious and lethal disease to quickly blur those lines. With countries in the West preparing to ease unprecedented national and regional shutdowns, officials are looking to include a range of required (or at least strongly urged) digital testing and tracking tools to limit new outbreaks of COVID-19. Mobile phone applications that force people to share personal health data and reveal their location and other forms of relinquishing control of their personal information are now considered integral to ensuring that normal life can begin to resume. We're told it worked in South Korea and China, where concerns about data privacy are either less ingrained in the culture, or simply smothered by the authorities.
All of this may be bringing that old trade-off full circle: If you really want to protect your privacy, you must again stay inside. Let's ponder that alongside the even more pressing worry about preserving our very lives if we venture outside.
None of these tensions are easy to resolve, especially with so little truly known about the nature of this virus. What is the immediate risk of being in public places? What is the longer-term price of keeping our economies on hold? When will it all be over?
Meanwhile, longer-lasting moral questions, like privacy, hover just above it all. For now, a sense of tentative pragmatism seems to prevail, as a crisis of this magnitude prompts citizens to put their fate in the hands of the state for lack of any other viable solution. So if the government says so, most people are probably prepared to share some of their personal information to feel safer — we have, after all, gotten used to knowing that our data is being shared and our smartphone maps know where we are. But after two months of quarantine, one thing we're not used to right now: Going outside.
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