Liberties yielded in this crisis could set a new normal

Post-9/11 and 26/11 attacks, security measures at US airports and Indian hotels became stringent, normalizing privacy sacrifices for safety. The COVID-19 crisis demands similar privacy compromises for health surveillance, potentially resetting our privacy expectations permanently, but we must resist normalizing this intrusion post-crisis.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Before 11 September 2001, security was virtually non-existent at airports in the US. I remember how friends could accompany you almost upto the boarding gate for a domestic flight and wave you goodbye as you got on the plane. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, all this changed. Almost overnight, airports were locked down so that only passengers were allowed past security checkpoints. Today, nearly two decades later, we follow the same security procedures—taking our shoes and belts off as we approach metal detectors, and removing our laptops from our bags before passing them through scanners.

Before 26 September 2008, hotels in India used to be very different places. You could drive straight up to the front doors of a hotel, hand your keys over to a valet, and walk right into the lobby. After the Mumbai terror attacks, all that changed. Vehicles were subject to mandatory screening and guests had to be scanned before they were allowed in. I don’t remember ever feeling any irritation at the inconvenience of this revised security routine—and after all these years, it has just become routine.

When personal freedoms are constrained under exactly the right circumstances, we tend not to question the appropriateness of the restrictions. We accept the sector-specific privacy we are forced to make as necessary for the greater good. And when things eventually return to normal, since we’re already habituated to our new routine, we simply continue to put up with it. It takes a crisis to reset our expectations of the freedoms to which we are accustomed. When the crisis is serious enough, the adjustments stay with us long after the event has passed. We quietly adapt to the new normal, accepting fewer liberties than we once felt we were entitled to.

Today, we are in the midst of just such a crisis. The covid-19 pandemic can only be brought under control with aggressive measures. Countries that have beaten back the epidemic have done so at extreme cost to civil liberties—widespread deployment of thermal scanners, aggressive isolation and quarantine procedures, and a singular disregard of personal freedoms for the sake of everyone’s safety.

People in China weren’t offered a choice. They were not asked whether they would like to have their temperature taken. They were not offered the option of going home and taking care of themselves. Instead, thermal scanners were deployed everywhere, and almost everyone who had a fever was detected and sent off to a fever clinic for a test right away. If there was even the slightest suspicion that someone had the virus, the person was isolated in a large facility for the purpose. All this was done under conditions so aggressive and extreme that few complained when parents were separated from their children.

Countries that had always placed a higher premium on personal liberties were caught unawares, and suffered far greater fatalities than they otherwise would have. Even these countries have now begun to aggressively clamp down to curtail the viral spread, mandating citywide lockdowns and aggressive social policing in order to enforce isolation. The world is fast realizing that this crisis will only be brought under control with harsh measures.

For the first time in history, technology will play an outsize role in this medical crisis. High global telecom saturation gives us an unprecedented ability to monitor human movements at population scale. The large volumes of data that we have at our command will allow us to build accurate models to evaluate the relative effectiveness of various social isolation measures, allowing us to use empirically optimal protocols slow the spread. Since most of us carry GPS enabled smartphones with near field communication features built in, applications can be created to identify the infected persons we came in contact with, allowing us to quickly trace the individuals most likely to be virus carriers.

All of these technologies will require us to reset our current expectations of personal privacy. For them to work, we need to allow health officials to use our location data to map human movement patterns so that we can strategically deploy the most effective measures at the most appropriate times. We will need to allow our phones to share information with those around us, so we can trace people we came in contact with to identify if any among them later tests positive for covid-19. If the thought of such technologies makes us uncomfortable, it’s because they require us to lower our expectations of privacy. However, in the current crisis, this is what we are going to be called upon to do, as tools of this sort are going to be essential to save lives.

As with previous crises, this one too will pass. We will eventually bring the Covid-19 epidemic under control and go back to living our usual lives. But in the process, we will have so dramatically reset our expectations of personal privacy that the technological infrastructure we erect to track the ill and the infectious is unlikely to be dismantled. We could well grow accustomed to being subject to digital medical surveillance in order to stave off the dozens of other viruses like coronavirus that could wreak the same sort of havoc across the globe.

Our expectations of personal privacy are about to be permanently reset, and because of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we will might feel inclined to put up with the inconvenience this causes. But we should not allow this to become the new normal.