September 27, 2020

Privacy & Encryption Will Be More Important Than Ever In Wake Of Coronavirus

Be it Cambridge Analytica, Equifax, or wireless carrier location data, the U.S. has already faced a steady parade of privacy and security related scandals. Now as countries around the world hunker down to slow the rate of COVID-19, the problem could easily grow even larger as a chain reaction of implications make privacy, security, and tools like encryption more important than ever.

Millions of Americans are now telecommuting for the first time. As they do so, more than a few of them won’t be wise enough to use basic security precautions while handling sensitive work or health related data. And as we’ve noted for years, services like VPNs often don’t provide reliable protection, given it’s hard to verify just how secure or trustworthy service owners are. Many services were already shady as hell, and even the reliable offerings may struggle under the load.

Many folks are already using the pandemic as scam fodder. As a result, the shift to home work — and the dramatic spike in healthcare information being shoveled around the internet — means that the battle over encryption is also more important than ever:

U.S. is now dependent on remote work. Encryption defends against snoops who’d love to eavesdrop on your work calls, videoconferences, & emails. These senators want to make Zoom, Google, etc. kneecap a technology that, now more than ever, is vital to our (already brittle) economy.

— Riana Pfefferkorn (@Riana_Crypto) March 18, 2020

As with everything this pandemic is going to touch, there are layers and layers of complications here. Many popular teleconferencing services don’t have particularly great privacy standards. And with no U.S. privacy law to speak of for the internet era (outside of the problematic COPPA), it shouldn’t be hard to see how we might run into some additional problems. It should also be easy to see how the pandemic may provide justification for all manner of problematic privacy and security related behavior, from the war on encryption to the quest to expand domestic surveillance.

Israel, for example, has started using a previously unknown database of phone location data to help track the spread of COVID-19. The Washington Post this week indicated that both Google and Facebook (that bastion of privacy-related trust) are also working with the U.S. government to explore the use of location data to help combat the spread of the virus. Experts suggest that we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, including data sharing and sunset provisions into any efforts designed to battle the pandemic:

ok, to clarify: 1) sunset clauses. any new #coronavirus surveillance needs an end/scrutiny-and-renewal date. 2) not just anyone gets to track and predict, legitimate public authorities and epidemiologists do. 3) none of this is entrepreneurial. profit ≠ public interest.

— linnet taylor (@linnetelwin) March 14, 2020

We’re only going to have so much attention to go around as we worry about ourselves, our families, and our livelihoods. Unfortunately, the pandemic could easily provide cover for the steady expansion of problematic domestic surveillance efforts that continues at a pretty brisk clip, even in normal times.
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