1. To track or not to track? Location data vs. the coronavirus 👣🛰️
Apple and Google are joining forces to develop a mass contact tracing platform, NHSX is testing a coronavirus-tracking app and three US local governments adopted a privacy-first contact tracing tool developed at MIT. Hence, the big question in tech ethics this week is whether or not we should open the box on mass location tracking.
On the one hand, this is an unprecedented crisis for which tech tools could be life-saving. The Director of the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in the US claims that 'very aggressive' contact tracing is needed for society to return to normal. South Korea seems to have successfully ‘flattened the curve’ through near-universal contact tracing coupled with widespread testing and reporting. Contact tracing looks to be a helpful tool in managing the crisis, albeit one that is only effective with widespread testing. What’s more, big tech companies already hold this information about you for commercial reasons, the incursion is nothing new.
Mass contact tracing, however, opens up a can of worms with respect to privacy, security, the risk of function creep and the question of whether it will be scaled back again. Firstly, Digital Research Fellow Tony Roberts sets why we should be wary of who is implementing these tools. This may amplify a disquieting overlap between the tools of surveillance capitalists and disciplinary authorities. Not only will this feed the power of big tech but it may also usher in a disturbing new normal in post-COVID governance, largely because enhanced surveillance powers may be hard to scale back. Critics point to the persistence of ‘temporary’ powers authorised in the US Patriot Act, and how their function expanded from counter-terrorism to mass surveillance. With contact-tracing, experts are already pointing out its privacy weak points. The UK has existing laws requiring that location data provided to governments be aggregated and anonymised, although ministers are seeking the power to de-anonymise users ‘if deemed proportionate’. Finally, contact-tracing plays into fears that COVID-19 is being used as an excuse to ramp up surveillance measures worldwide - as this 28-country comparative analysis sets out.
How can we find the right balance between using all available tools to tackle the crisis whilst maintaining robust ethical guidance? Here are some suggested principles - tweet us if you have more to suggest:
One day this will all blow over. Let’s set the tone for a more people-powered and inclusive digital governance now.
2. Zooming in on Video Conferencing Software 📺
In a recent article, Tech Analyst Benedict Evans likens lockdown to a giant forced experiment. Videoconferencing has been around for over a decade now, but it is now our main form of professional communication. Zoom emerged as the dominant tool in this space, but this has turned the spotlight on their security and privacy policies.
Cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier is one of several voices airing concern about the civilian and professional implications of Zoom’s expansion, but concern pre-dates the COVID crisis: in 2019, part of a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission against Zoom noted that
‘Zoom intentionally designed their web conferencing service to bypass browser security settings and remotely enable a user’s web camera without the consent of the user. As a result, Zoom exposed users to the risk of remote surveillance, unwanted video calls, and denial-of-service attacks.’
Zoom is facing three key pressures: hackers are taking advantage of their security weaknesses, with thousands of passwords and email addresses from Zoom accounts already on sale; consumers are taking legal action against non-consensual data-sharing with Facebook, and shareholders are suing Zoom for ‘overstating’ their security risks (*tiny violin*). Zoom may be in the spotlight, but competing software tools are often equally problematic. But ethically (and legally) robust, open-source, and/or encrypted alternatives are both possible and available, such as Signal, Jitsi Meet and Starleaf. The Guardian's Kari Paul sets out the pros and cons of video conferencing tools. It may be time to nudge your organisation into checking what it is sharing. If you or your organisation are continuing to use Zoom, Mozilla Foundation compiled some helpful tips to make your Zoom gatherings more private.