Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, many a times privacy and ethical concerns relating to the usage of personal data has become a chief concern for several governmental and non-governmental agencies across the globe.
The pandemic has made it clear to all of us that digital surveillance is part and parcel of the new-normal. Digital surveillance has been implemented in almost every developed nation.
China utilizes camera-fitted helmets, facial recognition techniques for identifying potential COVID-19 patients. Singapore launched a decisive contact-tracing application. India, along with camera-fitted helmets similar to that of China’s method, performs its supervision with the help of its Arogya Setu app where it maps out the areas affected or areas in containment owing to the virus. This makes it easier for the citizens not to venture into those areas.
Note-worthy mention here is that of Israel’s scrutiny. The country continues to do its supervision through the process of phone surveillance which deems to be a degree higher in terms of privacy invasion. It is in this context that we need to take in account of the nefarious Pegasus incident that occurred last year in India.
Pegasus Case Study
The spyware, named Pegasus, designed by Israeli firm named NSO Group came into light when the malfunctioning of the software was exposed by a Toronto based cybersecurity firm, Citizen Lab. The Toronto-based lab had brought attention to the people stating how NSO Group using Pegasus had evaded beyond the walls of privacy and were intruding into the private details of people using the particular software. Data was stolen from across 45 countries, including India. To make matters further worse in India, Pegasus hacked into those using WhatsApp on their phones and the number accounted for close to 400 million users, including famous lawyers, activists who possessed sensitive information pertaining to several legal and social issues of the country.
This incident shed light on how digital surveillance is after-all not as secure as we perceive it to be. NSO Group had sold the spyware ‘only to Government agencies across the world’. Protests were led by Indian Congress Leader Priyanka Gandhi along with those who fell victim to this horrendous digital nightmare. The issue still remains to be unresolved as it has been more than a year and no strict action has been taken, despite an internal committee being set up to look into the matter.
This is one of the many troublesome disputes related to data privacy and its ethical concerns that cropped up in the last few years.
With the entry of the pandemic, digital surveillance has faced its pros and cons. On the brighter side, digital tools have helped all frontline healthcare workers speed up their efficiency. Government and non-governmental authorities have optimally utilized their digital resources for contact tracing, thermal scanning which are the imperative steps involved in tackling the spread of the virus.
On the downside, which is the dispute at hand, there exists no concept of privacy. The very contact tracing apps that served to be expedient all through the pandemic, comes with its own cost.
The Real Scare
A study conducted by Nature Medicine on 50 COVID-19-related apps in May 2020, a think-tank based out of America with functioning offices across several continents globally, revealed that the basic foundations on which the contact tracing applications run on were on the framework of live maps, real-time location-based alerts, systems that perform tasks of direct reporting to governments and non-governmental agencies. Some applications went in further detail by assessing an individual’s physiological status by monitoring the blood pressure, heartbeat rates, temperature, oxygen saturation, etcetera to name some. While they are majorly advantageous for the frontline health workers, the risk/cost involved is that of the privacy invasion and potential stealing or misuse of data when fallen in the wrong hands. While the study was conducted, the researchers noticed that more than 80% of the applications required the permission of the user.
This is the part where most of us directly hit the “I AGREE TO TERMS AND CONDITIONS” button. That is exactly what occurred in the study as well. All users accepted the terms and conditions. When further investigation was performed, they were shocked to find out that the applications use sensitive information such as contact numbers, photos, emails, passwords and what-not. With the perception that these applications would be collecting only information pertaining to COVID-19 related symptoms and other physiological factors, the study metamorphosed into a digital scare from scratch.
Another striking feature the study revealed was that only 16 out the 50 applications stated that the ‘Users information will remain anonymous and will not be used for any other purpose.’ If every application were to be designed that way, perhaps a momentous change can be witnessed in the digital world.
Due to the pandemic and to bring in a strict mode of supervision, several authorities will have access to almost all our data. The challenge comes into the scenario when we ask ourselves, apart from the glorified authorities, who would have access to our data? What are the means through which an anonymous person can approach our data? In the wake of the pandemic, it is a great move that several organizations globally have taken the decision to move into digital surveillance.
But it also does not mean that our data must be left in the open without any safety or security. There must be safeguarding measures around our data. It is true that data has become the most valuable asset now after oil. Ultimately, the data belongs to us human beings. Can a price or value be put on us if that is the case? Have we become the commodities of the digital age?
We live in the digital era and there is absolutely no escape from it whatsoever. Our digital footprint is majorly a factor for our professional success through the use of platforms such as LinkedIn which is essential in today’s age. Be it Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, our social media presence determines our personal brand as well. But when incidents similar to that of Pegasus occurs, what is the guarantee that our data, be it professional or personal, is safe? Who do we approach in such uncertain circumstances? These questions seem to have unsure answers. We must introspect and look into these questions.
Perhaps the best we can do as citizens of the digital age is to upskill ourselves. Educate ourselves better by watching documentaries related to Big-Data such as The Social Dilemma which shows the bitter truth that occur behind our social media profiles and The Great Hack which portrays the infamous Cambridge Analytica-Facebook Scam with relation to the elections happening world-wide. Being citizens of the digital age, the opportunities are limitless. We can strive for the better. Perhaps even build a safer and more secure cyberspace for the generations to come.