Will Coronavirus Response Erode Our Right to Privacy?

Alice Salles Comments

As White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx states that outbreak projections widely spread by the media aren’t always what they seem, there’s a growing number of public figures pushing the narrative that America should be more like South Korea. 

privacy coronavirus south korea

Claiming the small east Asian country of 51 million people is ahead of others in its fight against COVID-19, politicians and members of the media are making the case that America should embrace a similar approach. However, few proponents of this idea are discussing how the South Korean government uses phone and credit card tracking to require people to get tested, and then to ensure that those who have tested positive for the virus aren’t breaking their quarantine. 

In addition to using tracking to enforce mandatory rules, the country is also exposing gathered data to the greater population in the form of an app that gives residents knowledge of coronavirus “hot spot” areas. While the app itself does not publish personal information related to those who have fallen ill, it does demonstrate how far the South Korean surveillance mechanisms can go. 

Embracing Surveillance

In America, privacy concerns have been under the spotlight for years since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden reported on America’s secret surveillance programs, but in more recent years, apathy replaced concern, and the U.S. government once again ramped up its efforts to boost its surveillance apparatus. 

With the alleged threat that COVID-19 may pose, the U.S. government has a great excuse to put those capabilities to use like South Korea and even China before them. What’s left for us to find out is if the pro-privacy spirit that was so evident when Snowden came forward remains alive among those who now fear for their lives and health. 

In an article for Forbes, cybersecurity contributor Zak Doffman explains that as government leaders use terms such as “the invisible enemy” when referring to the virus, we find ourselves more openly supportive of making privacy compromises. 

If the goal is to win this “war,” the sentiment goes, then the government can and should do anything in its power, and that includes partnering with tech companies such as Facebook and Google to track citizens, enforce quarantine rules, and threaten those who defy government orders. 

As a matter of fact, the Washington Post reports that the Trump administration is already “in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat coronavirus.” 

While “combating coronavirus” sounds wholesome, it is what’s beneath the surface that should be scary. After all, as we become gradually comfortable with the government tracking our health and whereabouts through social media and smartphone tech, we will also grant bureaucrats access to much more than what kind of viruses lurk inside our throats. 

Are we willing to tolerate this violation of privacy? And if so, why pretend we hold to a Constitution that defends our right to remain free from unwanted or undue intrusion in our private life and affairs?

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