China has been criticised for its surveillance and data collection activities during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, but now that the pandemic has spread around the world people in the west are willing to compromise privacy for safety, a survey has found.
In the US and UK, 78% of people surveyed said they would sacrifice their privacy to help fight the spread of the coronavirus, according to a report released Wednesday by UK-based tech research firm Comparitech.
Governments and private companies around the world are pushing to collect and analyse more data to help contain the spread of the disease, which has sickened more than 1.4 million people globally – and at least for now there is little resistance as most people seem willing to sacrifice privacy for public safety.
More than 50 countries have launched apps and websites designed to inform the public about the health risks and help prevent the spread of Covid-19 – but they rely on collecting data such as personal information, health status, location history and so on.
In many instances, user privacy and data security have been ignored or overlooked, but the report found that 94% of the 3,000 respondents polled in the US and UK would be willing to provide their name, age, and gender to a Covid-19 tracking app if they exhibited symptoms, while those aged 25 to 34 were most willing to forego their usual privacy principles to help combat the pandemic.
“These apps and websites collect a range of personal information, and most of [them] have good intentions and could be helpful in the fight against Covid-19,” said Paul Bischoff, the author of the report. “But they could also have long-lasting privacy implications for the people that use them ... Many fail to adequately secure user data, don’t address how information can be shared with third parties, or lack clear data retention policies.”
In the US, people in the Northeast and West are more likely than the rest of the country to provide identifying personal and location data to apps. These areas include densely-populated cities in states like California, as well as New York, the epicentre of the outbreak in the US.
Mount Sinai researchers are tracking Covid-19 across New York City with an app called Stop Covid NYC. The app, which uses web-based surveys of the city’s residents, asks questions about demographics, symptoms, exposure history, and risk factors.
China was the first country to trial health codes, which were deployed in more than 100 cities via apps operated by Chinese tech giants Alibaba Group, owner of the South China Morning Post, and Tencent Holdings.
The green-orange-red colour code system, which determines the user’s quarantine status based on factors like travel history, duration of time spent in an outbreak-stricken area and relationships to potential carriers of the virus, has also been criticised for privacy breaches and a lack of transparency.
Chinese tech companies are also implementing facial recognition systems designed to flag citizens who are not wearing face masks, as well as detecting if anybody in a crowd is running a high temperature.
A number of apps are also using personal health information to alert people when they are in the same proximity as infected patients, or if they have been in close contact with someone with Covid-19. — South China Morning Post
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