Governments turn to tech in coronavirus fight – but at what cost?

Critics warn privacy, civil liberties may be at risk as govt’s turn to tech volunteers, companies in COVID-19 responses.

Coronavirus - apps - privacy
Across Europe, governments are increasingly using surveillance to try to curtail the spread of the new coronavirus [Antonio Calanni/AP Photo]

The COVID-19 hotline set up by Quebec’s government has been ringing off the hook for the past couple of weeks.

Though the province has only a quarter of Canada’s population, it has more than half of the country’s nearly 18,000 coronavirus cases, putting it under enormous pressure to disseminate information faster than the disease can spread.

A new chatbot, developed for the province by a local tech startup called Botpress Technologies, will be unveiled on the government’s coronavirus website soon to help diffuse some of the strain.

The development of the bot happened fast, said Marc Mercier of the Quebec City bot-making startup, Botpress Technologies. They offered their help, and the next morning they were meeting the government.

“We didn’t even know if we were going to get paid. We just felt it was the right thing to do,” said Mercier, who added that deployment of the bot will likely happen within the next couple of weeks.

In the past three weeks, thousands of skilled tech workers around the world have stepped forward to volunteer their time to governments and organisations struggling to deliver critical services amid COVID-19 chaos. While some say the goodwill is commendable, others worry citizens will forsake privacy rights and civil liberties in order for governments to have convenient services right now.

Grassroots efforts

In Europe, a virtual army of 3,300 volunteers organising on LinkedIn under the banner Cyber Volunteers 19, or CV19 for short, is working to provide online security to hospitals and healthcare institutions.

Lisa Forte, a partner at the United Kingdom-based Red Goat Cyber Security, co-founded CV19 with Daniel Card and Radoslaw Gnat three weeks ago after learning healthcare providers’ online systems were at heightened risk amidst the pandemic.

“We were concerned that, should the worst happen and they suffer a cyberattack at this moment in time, it could be pretty devastating,” Forte said on the phone. “It could even lead to a loss of life, potentially, in a worst-case scenario.”

So far, the group is supporting hundreds of institutions in the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Poland, and has the capacity to help more, said Forte. CV19 has fended off ransomware threats and phishing scams, and has worked to patch vulnerabilities in hospitals’ internal communication systems, she added.

The United States has a similar grassroots volunteer corps, organised by several ex-White House staffers and other high-profile technologists. The group, US Digital Response, has 3,000-plus volunteers ready to help state and local governments coordinate and communicate COVID-19 digital measures, said co-founder Cori Zarek – a former deputy US chief technology officer in the Obama administration and a current director at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation.

Coronavirus - apps - privacy
A man looks at his phone as he walks in Times Square, wearing a mask amid the coronavirus outbreak, in New York City [Brendan McDermid/Reuters] 

Zarek told Al Jazeera, for instance, that the state of New Jersey told the group it needed help informing small businesses what kind of financial aid was available to them. “We had a volunteer who, I think over the course of a weekend, put up If you’re a small business, you can head to that site and quickly navigate through a series of questions to understand what relief might be available to you,” she said.

US Digital Response has tackled a few dozen requests so far, including efforts to bring online the kinds of admin work normally done by fax and mail, as well as help coordinate mutual-aid networks like its Neighbor Express website for Concord, California.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of cities and counties [in the US], and they all kind of operate independently and don’t always have direct lines of communication with one another,” said Zarek.

“Particularly in a crisis, those networks are what you really need to be able to move fast, understand what’s working elsewhere, and then consider how to adapt it where you are. So that’s where we came in – to play that convenient coordinating role.”

These kinds of small-scale tech projects are helping governments put out some fires. But, some researchers warn that not all offers of help are equally altruistic, nor are all helpers capable of handling the complex social problems colliding inside this global health crisis.

Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and the former chief technologist of the US Federal Trade Commission, worries about the implications of embracing a tech market approach to solving COVID-19. “There’s not a lot of good data right now. Our actual ground truth surveying instrument – which is actual tests, the number of people infected – is quite limited, so we’re grasping and all these proxies for data,” he said.

As an example, Soltani pointed to a “smart” thermometer whose maker says it can help detect coronavirus hot spots – nevermind that the data would be biased, as it would only pull data from those with the little-known thermometer, which ranges in price from $20 to $70 depending on the model.

Privacy and tracking

A track-and-trace mobile app in Singapore, meanwhile, promises to inform those who might have come into contact with infected people by using anonymised location data. But it only works for people who have voluntarily downloaded the app, which limits its efficacy. Some researchers worry the next step to flattening the curve may be tracing without permission, which brings up questions of privacy.

Google is already testing those limits with its Community Mobility Reports, which use mobile location data to track people’s whereabouts without their explicit consent. The company says it uses “world-class anonymization technology” to tell governments whether their citizens are abiding by stay-home orders.

Coronavirus - apps - privacy
Contact tracing app TraceTogether, released by the Singapore government to curb the spread of COVID-19 is seen on a mobile phone [Edgar Su/Reuters] 

In moments of crisis, it is easy to get approval for “solutions” that ultimately have long-term effects on civil liberties, Soltani said, pointing to the US Patriot Act that was passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. The Act granted the US government broad powers to conduct domestic surveillance operations in the name of its counterterrorism efforts.

Soltani is watching for what COVID-19 leaves in its wake. “These are times when draconian policies get put into place,” he said.

China has repurposed some of its surveillance tools to track COVID-19 and send information to law enforcement. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the “invasive” use of anti-terrorism surveillance tools to track the virus was needed for the country’s battle against an “invisible enemy”.

Elsewhere, the European Commission has already asked major European telecoms to give them greater access to customers’ mobile location data. Similar efforts are under way in the US. A letter led by Amnesty International and co-signed by a dozen citizens’ rights groups is imploring the US government to install guardrails on any emergency digital measures in order to protect individuals’ civil liberties. Soltani said it is not a difficult leap from using tech to track the spread of the virus, to using it to dictate who is allowed to move around and who is not.

In a world where most people have internet access, the solution is not to have no tech help at all. Soltani said it is commendable that so many tech workers and companies are volunteering time and resources to help in their own way. But rigorous privacy protections are required now, knowing that governments may never repeal their newfound extraordinary powers.

In that sense, thoughtful tech solutions have a lot of power to advance the cause of digital privacy. “The question [for apps and developers] is going to be, ‘What are the policy decisions that they made?'” said Soltani.

Source: Al Jazeera