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Doing the Right Thing When No One Is Looking:

The Impact of Technology on Privacy during and after Coronavirus

Technology in the Age of COVID-19

Bay Area, California. For almost two months, we have lived in an unimaginable state of emergency from COVID-19. Our lives have upside-down. We are learning to adapt while stuck in our homes, navigating our startups, our teams, and our children through isolation and danger. Every human contact is suspect. As is any object touched by another person. Is anything safe anymore?

We vacillate between different technologies in our immediate surroundings. Even as we are getting tactile and flirting with self-sufficiency, our homes are often connected and full of sensors. Yes, we sew masks, grow herbs, make frittata, kick a soccer ball, repair the dishwasher, scrub toilets, and teach our kids clever ways to break words into syllables. But we are likely watching YouTube videos or getting our Google assistant to spout out recipes.

To connect outside our immediate surroundings, we use video apps like Zoom with colleagues, teachers, friends, family, doctors, and fitness instructors. While Zoom added more users in January and February 2020 than in the entire previous year, use of competitors Microsoft Teams and Fuze is up 500 percent and 251 percent, respectively. As consumers, we shop online for both real and digital goods. Everything from food, cleaning supplies, and toys to music, movies, and audiobooks. Companies can’t keep up with our demands for internet bandwidth, toilet paper, food delivery services, non-crappy video streaming, video calling, and e-events like fitness classes, dance parties, college courses, children’s activities, and therapy sessions. Is it any surprise we are spending 20 percent more time on our smartphones?

No Going Back

After the world as we know it opens back up, despite warnings of video call burnouts and overload, our digitally enabled new normal will include more digital events and digital commerce than before COVID-19. New behaviors are emerging. Habits are forming. Customers who had resisted online shopping or digital events have now experienced their convenience. Companies embracing accelerated automation and remote work won’t simply dial them back. Surveillance technologies like facial recognition and location tracking that governments and companies are putting into place will not just go away.

The upside of mass adoption of digital technology during this vulnerable time is that we get to witness humanity without all the social filters. The global vulnerability and a sense of mobilizing together is unprecedented. Making us reach out for real connections and conversations. Reflect and reconsider our priorities. And in my world, innovate. We get to see people as they are. Vulnerable with grey roots or patchy skin. We’re all tired of pretending we are fine, strong, and have our act together. The masks that had become our identity are thinning out. Even celebrities look like the rest of us, less processed and plastic without their highly paid stylists, makeup artists, and botox fillers.

The downsides are many. “Zoom Bombing” is real and dangerous. Really, the need to require passwords never occurred to them? Digital targeting for children has replaced digital well-being. Inequity is glaring at us. Only 57 percent of the world has internet access. Bandwidth matters. Access matters. Device versions and the apps they can and cannot support matters. The kind of house, support, family, savings account, and which country you are in affects how you show up, how you can engage. How you interact with people online matters. The way we interrupt and engage on video calls and conferences is not conducive to many group discussions. Just last week, I was on a group video session where an advisor was coaching startup founders and VCs. He suggested everyone ask personal questions before launching into work mode. Show empathy. Or feign empathy, at least.

“I know it’s hard,” he said, “when you’re focused on results. But try.” Try to act like a human being, he might as well have said. Maybe he meant something else. But the Zoom call format didn’t allow me to casually solicit a clarification. Everything is an interruption, and it’s visible and audible to the group. The social cost is high. Many companies, especially startups founders I have spoken to, noticed an initial burst of productivity but are starting to see a decline in ideation and engagement. 

Perhaps one of the biggest downsides of all—and a cost to this convenience—is surrender of privacy.

Unintended Consequences

In the age of social distancing, interacting online is no longer optional. We are in a live digital experiment that is blurring our separate worlds. We are the consumers and the product. With private discussions about children’s playdates, medical care, and other intimate issues stored forever on someone’s cloud, the ethical concerns are more complex than over. 

They ought to be, at least. With our craving for convenience and anxiety over running out of toilet paper and bread, we are giving data brokers, image processors, nation-states, and surveillance operators more and more data with less and less protection. In some cases, we don’t have a choice. But we also let our guard down because everybody else is doing it. And because we have enough to worry about. The new, helpful apps and platforms that have sprung up to help us sometimes don’t ask for our consent. When they do, page after page of legal garble or our distracted minds make it unclear what we are agreeing to. 

Meanwhile, our faces, voices, gestures, preferences, and sensitive personal details are publicly collected and sometimes broadcast without caution. I’ve been on many Zoom sessions where the call organizer records the meeting without seeking permission. Or the permission and access is the cost of entry. Isolation or privacy? Some tutoring services record all sessions with children to protect themselves. Fitness classes with participants in compromising camera angles are recorded and circulated for replay to make sure people feel they are getting value for the money. Like reality TV stars, our candid moments belong to those whose tools we use, be those moments a strange angle while we are in our downward-facing dog pose, our kids waving shirtless in the background, or a colleague picking their nose during an online conference. I do not mean to be flippant. Consider serious implications such as cyberstalking and human right violations that can occur when the private becomes public. What will happen if (when?) our data ends up in the wrong hands?

The unintended consequences may seem unlikely or irrelevant during a deadly pandemic, but our words and deeds captured in texts, DMs, videos, and recordings will outlast the panic. It may be used without our knowledge and even against us later. Far worse than an angry word we wish we could take back but cannot, all personal data we give companies cannot be reclaimed or forgiven or reinterpreted. A momentary slip of judgment, or something that was meant for a small group could end up being broadcasted and haunting us for the rest of our lives. A digital footprint is hard to scrub away. When COVID-19 passes—and it will—we will wonder what happened.

Is COVID-19 the Time to Worry about Data Privacy?

Until February, we were raving about privacy and security. News was fraught with technology companies harnessing our digital activity to create algorithms that controlled and influenced what we saw and heard. We were holding sessions on ethical AI, fake news, fake chatbots, and fake identities trying to bypass filter bubbles and echo chambers. Debating ways to navigate social media’s impact on upcoming elections. About companies or data crawlers repurposing and selling our data, our voice, and our images for innocent, helpful, or nefarious purposes with dubious or no consent. Some of us who thrive on innovation and technology were debating how to design better solutions. That concern is still out there. Or I should say, the problem is still out there. And with a larger digital footprint, getting worse. Our concern seems to have disappeared or at least moved down in our priority list.

Can you blame us? We’re in the middle of a crisis. Privacy is the last thing on our mind. We’re just thankful to connect. To talk to our grandparents. To get that robot to deliver our groceries. To not have to visit store after store in person looking for eggs or cleaning supplies. Who cares about what’s being done with our private information? Here we are, our hands chapped from overwashing, rocking multi-colored face masks like they’re part of a superhero costume, dodging fellow walkers, bike riders, and grocery store goers to gauge how far six feet really is. Businesses are trying to stay afloat and keep the job market alive. Governments and healthcare workers are trying to keep order, provide essential services, and manage unemployment and unrest. Is this really the time for us to worry about individuals, governments or companies abusing our data?

Yes, it is. Just as we adhere to no-compromise safety measures in public to mitigate spread of the novel coronavirus, the technology products the public has adopted needs to have an uncompromising standard for data privacy and consumer safety. It should be a core consideration in how we build things. Privacy settings, security, and trust are design variables. We can learn from healthcare workers about the discipline of building responsibility and risk assessment into our processes and decision criteria.

This pandemic will pass. Our worlds may appear the same but there will be a permanent acceleration towards a digital world. We will look back. Take stock. Sort out how we did individually and collectively. As a society, as a company, as a community, as governments. What will define us then is what defines us now. Who took advantage of whom? Who went the extra mile—stepped up and helped? Especially those with power, resources, and insights to know better? How unforgiving will people, regulators, and consumers be of tech-savvy companies or institutions that knew better? This is not the first crisis we have globally navigated. We know what we need to do.

Let’s do the right thing when no one is looking.

Because eventually, everyone will be.

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