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COVID-19 Dispatch: Albert Fox Cahn Talks Privacy Under Threat

Phone applications, contact tracing, physical lockdown control, closeup surveillance of movements, CCTV, digital tracking and facial recognition tools — governments are doing everything to repress the spread of the virus. This intensive surveillance has so far proved to be one of the most efficient ways to ensure public safety in the light of the COVID-19 outbreak. However, how far can this surveillance go until it endangers our privacy? This issue is broken down by Albert Fox Cahn, the founder and executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a graduate and fellow at NYU School of Law, whose articles are regularly published in the New York Times, NBC Think, NY Daily News and who has lectured at Harvard College School of Law, New York University, Dartmouth College and Columbia University. Dr. Cahn is also a civil rights activist, whose works are largely focused on the issue of individual privacy in the age of digitalisation. On April 29th he granted us an interview with Room for Discussion, on the topic of the possible risks we face in the post-coronavirus era.

Dr. Cahn was concerned with the issue of privacy long before the corona crisis. He explained that in the USA in particular, the post-9/11 age has been shaped by increased surveillance by the government, which in response has raised the problem of endangered privacy. S.T.O.P.’s work hasn’t changed much since the COVID-19 outbreak, though the surveillance has drastically increased. Dr. Cahn mentions that only the threat has changed, but not the government’s response to it — if the virus became a unique danger, the government’s reaction remains predictable. This surveillance, instead of making people feel safe, largely threatens their civil rights.

Yet this increased control seems to have done us good — the examples of South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan appear impressive in terms of containing the virus, largely owing to advanced surveillance and contact tracing. Dr. Cahn believes these cases should be analysed separately: what helped South Korea tackle the virus successfully wasn’t just increased surveillance, but massive testing of the population (by mid-March alone around 300 000 people had been tested). Singapore has yet to triumph, as more cases are recurring and a second wave of the virus is expected. Their Bluetooth tracking app wasn’t a meaningful factor, discovering only 12% of cases. Dr. Cahn also noted that some countries even misuse the tools of surveillance they were given, as happened in Russia. Their facial recognition (FR) application not only proved imprecise, but was also abused for political means. FR helps to monitor movements and track location, which allows for amassing mountains of compromising material on individuals — “a perfect tool of authoritarianism”, as Dr. Cahn calls it. In other instances, governments’ blind confidence in unproven technology may be a gravy train for businesses to run more profit — which, as innocuous as it sounds, may be to the detriment of individual privacy and public safety. 

Another flaw of the digital surveillance pointed out by Dr. Cahn is that technology, even though perceived as precise and unbiased, remains limited (as for example, artificial intelligence and facial recognition). It tends to exacerbate racial and socio-economic inequalities; in the USA in particular targeting minorities of the lower social class. Governments use it as a tool to shoot two birds with one stone: to trace contacts of potentially infected people and to deport illegal immigrants. Not only is technology biased, but it is also inaccurate: as Dr. Cahn pointed out, facial recognition has around a 90% accuracy rate for white people, meanwhile for people of colour it is only 60-70%. Not to mention that there’s a gender inaccuracy as well: performance rates showed to be significantly lower for women than for men, which can be explained with the lack of diversity in the teams designing facial recognition.

The intuitive question was then raised: what happens to our privacy in the post-virus era? Will governments relinquish the absolute powers they were given thanks to virus outbreak? Dr. Cahn, against our hopes, is scared they will not. He believes governments will make the most out of the control they’ve acquired and will conspire to prolong it for as long as possible. He supports his view with the example of the Patriot Act, passed by the US government in response to the 9/11 attacks, which implemented various intrusive surveillance measures: initially intended to expire in 2005, it has since been extended several times, and recently a possible extension until 2024 was discussed. This serves as a living example of governments’ itch for access to private information.

Dr. Cahn then explains what we, as individuals, can do to prevent a 1984 scenario and make sure no Big Brother is watching us. He first outlines that the virus will undoubtedly be around for the next couple of years — albeit to a much smaller extent, and we need to accept this fact and adapt to the new lifestyle. It means that the ways of fighting for civil rights may change: mass protests don’t look feasible in the near future, so we will have to find new ways to fight for the protection of our privacy, which may require a whole new vocabulary of civil activism tools in the age of social distancing. Not only do we need to fight for our right to privacy, Dr. Cahn notes, but we also need to ensure that there’s no surveillance discrimination of the most vulnerable groups in society, who are suffering most under the rise of superintendence. 

Dr. Cahn shared his concern about the threat to our privacy and reasoned why surveillance is overestimated when it comes to contaminating the virus. Unfortunately, due to preventative measures, he gave the interview online. For those interested to learn more details, the podcast of the interview by the Room for Discussion can be found here, on their Facebook page and UvA Radio, as well as on platforms such as Spotify and Soundcloud.


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