More surveillance, not less, will be the new normal in a forever changed world
Fighting the disease effectively may mean surrendering more rights.
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Just over a year ago it looked like polarized politicians and terrified tech companies could agree on one U.S. policy issue: the need for national privacy regulations. Tech behemoths didn’t really want stricter rules, of course. But they recognized that, faced with clampdowns in Europe and one powerful state, California, a coordinated effort would be better. Populists of various hues were happy to come down on the side of more data protection for consumers.
As David Meyer argues persuasively in the new issue of Fortune, the pandemic has upended the world’s thinking on privacy just as thoroughly as it has disrupted so many aspects of our lives. Meyer writes that even committed privacy activists recognize that fighting the nasty virus will require clever surveillance and that various smartphone technologies and other techniques will be the best way to do this.
Surveillance-aided “contact tracing” already seems to be effective in one authoritarian regime, China, and at least two Asian democracies, Singapore and South Korea, all of which have attitudes toward civil liberties that are different from the West’s.
The fact of the matter is that the West has moved beyond the simple phase of the “techlash” of the last couple of years. Now many of us understand that technology gadgets and their digital platforms offer the best chances of fighting the pandemic quickly and efficiently, at least before a vaccine is available.
You can see the privacy-invasive solutions forming in real time. The New York Times wrote late last week about how France, which fears surveillance more than most, has done a 180 and plans to mimic Singapore’s approach. Also in The Times, Donald G. McNeil Jr., in an important article that looks at the two-year pandemic outlook, points to the adult-film industry of all things for its use of an app that verifies actors are H.I.V negative.
As Meyer concludes in Fortune: “It’s safe to say more surveillance, not less, will be the new normal in a forever changed world.”
San Francisco and Seattle have fought two of the most effective battles against the novel coronavirus among U.S. cities. As a resident of the former city, I’m grateful and more than a little surprised. After all, it was just in February that I chronicled the city’s many shortcomings. As of Sunday, there has been a cumulative total of 20 deaths in San Francisco attributed to COVID-19. (All is not perfect, and Heather Knight explained this weekend in The San Francisco Chronicle about the deteriorating situation in the Tenderloin.) As for Seattle, Fortune’s Erika Fry has published an account of how the business community rallied to help fight the pandemic. It is an important read.
On Wednesday, Fry and I are going to discuss her story and the state of affairs in the tech industry’s two top cities. I’ll have more information tomorrow about how to sign up to watch that conversation.
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.