As more governments around the world announce measures to help contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, some of these measures impose severe restrictions on people’s privacy and human rights. Many of those measures are based on extraordinary powers meant to be used temporarily in emergencies. However, unless we are vigilant, some governments and corporations could use the pandemic to extend their power and influence permanently.
On March 25, Radio Canada International reported that the Czech Republic was the first to officially announce it will track the cell phones of virus carriers and those they come into contact with. RCI said other countries such as the U.K., Germany and Italy were considering similar action.
When asked about cell phone tracking during his March 24 daily public briefing on the COVID-19 situation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t rule it out: “I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in non-emergency situations, but as far as I know that is not a situation we’re looking at right now.”
On March 23, Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city was using cellphone tracking to determine where people were congregating. He later retracted the comment saying he had spoken incorrectly. Other Toronto city officials then said the city is not using such data.
In early March, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he wouldn’t rule out tracking COVID-19 patients, saying “Everything’s on the table” and noting that two major cell phone providers had offered any of their resources to help out.
On March 24, City News reported that several telecom companies, including Bell, Rogers, Telus and Videotron, said they had not provided cell phone data to government officials. However, CTV reported that Google has provided the government with location information.
In an April 3 blog post, Google said it would immediately start providing data “showing how busy certain types of places are …” The data will, “provide insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic.” Google says the data adhere “to our stringent privacy protocols and policies.” They say they provide only, “aggregated, anonymized data” that doesn’t permit the identification of individuals.
That sounds great except for one thing: Google doesn’t have “stringent privacy protocols” because any such protocols get in the way of making money. In fact, Google, and other tech giants, fight against government attempts to bring in such protocols.
In her 2019 book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff says, “Google and Facebook vigorously lobby to kill online privacy protection … because such laws are … threats …” Zuboff argues that Google and Facebook’s business model is to track everything we do online, predict what we’ll do and what we want, and sell those predictions to advertisers via targeted ads. The more information they get, the smarter their artificial intelligence machines get, the better they can predict our behaviour — and the more money they make. So, Google takes every opportunity it gets to access more information about us. 9/11 was one such opportunity.
Before 9/11, the U.S. government was working on privacy legislation to reign in Google and other companies. After 9/11, the government joined forces with Google to work on enhancing online surveillance capabilities. The access to information and power that Google got during that time helped the company grow into the powerhouse it is today. The COVID-19 pandemic could result in similar changes if it gives Google access to information and power.
Similarly, just as 9/11 saw governments gain powers that some abused for long after, COVID-19 could see governments get new tracking powers that could unfairly impact communities like Black Canadians and Indigenous peoples, who are currently overrepresented in Canada’s justice system.
Whatever is done, all measures must be temporary, necessary and proportionate. We must keep track of them and, when the pandemic is over, such extraordinary measures must be put to an end and held to account. If we don’t, we can expect to see an increase in online hate speech and real “fake news” because surveillance capitalists resist removing such content because it generates the most engagement, and, therefore, the most profit.
If we want to maintain democracy, as imperfect as it is, we must push our governments to implement suggestions like those in the June 2019 report of the international grand committee on big data, privacy and democracy, like banning personalized online advertising during elections and making surveillance capitalism CEOs and board members personally liable for the content on their platforms.
Robin Browne is an African-Canadian communications professional and the co-lead of the 613-819 Black Hub. He lives in Ottawa.