COVID-19 Cell Phone Tracking Data – A Health Surveillance Privacy Paradox?

14 days later!

Both Hugh and I agree, that it is time to use this platform again.

COVID-19 and cell phone data tracking is a Privacy Paradox par excellence! The the concept originally encapsulated how we were willing to trade-off the sharing of one’s data for the use of a ‘free’ social media platform.  We kinda’ knew that our data were being sold off to third parties, and traded by data brokers, and we sorta let it go, so we reacted by setting up some add blockers, adjusting our settings, using VPNs, or changing our browsers to things like DuckDuckGo. As imperfect as that situation was and is, that is what we did and it is what we do.

But cell phone tracking is something quite different.

Helen Nissembaum‘s Contextual Integrity (CI) is a very useful framework to think this through, for her “privacy, defined as CI, is preserved when information flows generated by an action or practice conform to legitimate contextual informational norms; it is violated when they are breached“. There are four CI theses as follows:

  • Thesis 1: Privacy is the Appropriate Flow of Personal Information
  • Thesis 2: Appropriate Flows Conform with Contextual Informational Norms (“Privacy Norms”)
  • Thesis 3: Five Parameters Define Privacy (Contextual Informational) Norms: Subject, Sender, Recipient, Information Type, and Transmission Principle
  • Thesis 4: The Ethical Legitimacy of Privacy Norms is Evaluated in Terms of: A) Interests of Affected Parties, B) Ethical and Political Values, and C) Contextual Functions, Purposes, and Values.

In terms of norms, social media is one thing, we do get upset when we find out that our photos are being used for facial recognition by our law enforcement institutions, when behaviour is tracked for targeted marketing purposes by data brokers or worse when scurrilous actors use our data to disrupt democracy. But our cell phone data, that is another level! We also know about UBER and smart phone provider transgressions but we seem to know very little about the Murkyness of Telecom Surveillance.  Furthermore, we are beginning to realize, that we cannot Privacy By Design (PbD) our way out of this, nor is cybersecurity enough, and that institutional and technological solutionism, falls short! We need to figure out how to govern these data practices right now.

These are exceptional times, circumstances are exceptional, the stakes are high, and the norms they are a changin’ . CI helps frame our thinking, although, Nissembaum also realizes that her thesis may need to reconsider how technology is an actor, while Teresa Scassa in Private Sector Data, Privacy and Pandemics and Michael Geist both warn us about the new normal, they also define and categorize types of data in a pandemic situation to help us out, frame their analysis with issues pertaining to law, policy and governance, and provide ways to circumscribe how these data might be shared to serve the public good or interest at this time.

But, who will govern this, and for long will this ‘sharing’ & tracking go on for?

What is for sure, just like 911 set new benchmarks in terms of what kind of surveillance we wound up ‘living with’,  COVID-19 will change data and technological monitoring norms. This may also be a time where we might change the course what surveillance we will accept, as presumably we are smarter now! There are perils and there are opportunities. How will we govern ourselves and our data during and post the pandemic era!

Below is a smattering of news articles on the topic: