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Post-pandemic track and trace

14 October 2021

By Valeria Orezzi

A lot has been written and said about tech and privacy. From GDPR to social media advertising, we as consumers are aware that our data is often not being adequately protected, but has COVID-19 changed our perspective?

A week ago, Home Secretary Priti Patel praised BT’s idea of an app and phoneline that would track users’ journeys home, sending a message to check whether they had arrived at their destination at the anticipated time, stating that “this new phone line is exactly the kind of innovative scheme which would be good to get going as soon as we can.

This piece of news sparked a lot of criticism around whether an app is the best solution to make a woman’s journey home safe rather than working to address the underlying issues which result in violence against women. Indeed, it is not the first time that a solution too simplistic was put forward as a sticking plaster for a problem much more complex.

But what surprised me was that not much was said about the impact that the app would also have on the individual’s right to privacy about where they are going; as if compromising on our own privacy was the accepted price to pay for safety.

Right before the pandemic, there was a huge wave of public support for curbing social media and companies’ access to private data in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica. COVID-19 led countries to rely heavily on surveillance data to help inform public health decisions. This rise of healthcare apps, from NHS-baked ones to help Test and Trace to vaccine passports, seem to have added a level of acceptance of surrendering our private information in exchange for safety. But it is not just for healthcare reasons that we’re being pushed to give up our data. The rise of QR code menus, which continues even as the pandemic is coming to an end, also leads us to give out our private information whenever we go to a restaurant.

While all of us with an iPhone happily tap ask app not to track feeling like we are in control of our own data, we give up personal information quite easily whenever for example a shop asks us to sign up to a newsletter for a discount.

It feels we are now at the edge of a new age when it comes to privacy and data sharing and as the public, we need to demand a data governance with rules and norms that are not written in font size 5 in cryptic language but are easily accessible to anyone, and to protect our right to conduct our lives without having to give up our right to privacy.