The State of Privacy Post-COVID-19

It’s interesting to speculate what the state of privacy could be as we transition from a state of action to one of management in the pandemic.

Different countries have taken various approaches to control the disease. Some countries, like China, have employed rigid restrictions by shutting down entire provinces and forcibly quarantining people. Another part of their strategy relies on using artificial intelligence (AI), technology, and surveillance to both track people and assist with contact tracing.

Other countries, like Sweden, have put some restrictions in place but have largely relied on the honor system for compliance.

At this stage, it’s hard to know for sure which path is the right one to take. The question of using technology to assist with contact tracing is a big one for more democratic countries, particularly around the management of the collected private, sensitive information.

When it comes to technology, we often sacrifice privacy for convenience. Sometimes we may perceive the risk of giving up our information as minimal to use a new app. Other times, we may opt out, or accept less functionality to preserve some of our privacy.

However, when our health and livelihoods are challenged, this brings a new perspective to the privacy issue. Many people are scared of getting Covid-19, or of unwittingly spreading it. Fear is a powerful motivator that could sway people to think differently about privacy.

In pre-pandemic times, people might find something like contact tracing through smartphones, such as the techniques used in China, to be invasive, especially when combined with AI and other high-tech surveillance measures. But in the middle of a pandemic, the perspective and context changes. Some people may re-evaluate their stances on privacy, or be willing to sacrifice some of their privacy for the greater good of preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Decisions surrounding our personal privacy and how much of it we’re willing (or required) to share should always be taken seriously, even during a pandemic when we’re all eager to get back to some kind of normalcy. It’s at times like these we may be tempted to give up too much without a way to get it back later because we’re scared or desperate or any other number of emotions. Going forward, will we only be able to move around “freely” if we decide to share our Covid-19 test results and allow ourselves to be tracked through smartphones?

Test Your DIY Skills During the Pandemic

The pandemic is a trying time for most, if not all, of us. Many of us are finding ourselves pushed, pulled, and forced to do things out of our comfort zones. I’ve always been resourceful and willing to make (some) things from scratch, but the pandemic is requiring me to experiment in new areas.

Getting groceries, including household cleaners, has been challenging. Grocery store queues are long, so we prefer to order online and do a pickup. Although this seems like the faster, safer option, I find that shopping online takes longer than I ever spent in a grocery store. Remember those days?

After our last order, where the particular store was out of eco-friendly household cleaners, I decided it was time to make my own. I’ve had success making non-toxic (and very effective) window cleaner before so I felt confident about making a hardwood floor cleaner.

I did a few searches looking for things like “DIY floor cleaner” and “how-to make hardwood floor cleaner.” Similar to grocery shopping online, I thought this would be a quick and easy search with a quick and easy recipe. I was bombarded with different tips, recipes, methods, etc. This abundance of information is what makes the internet so amazing and so daunting, all at the same time. The searching was turning out to be a longer activity than cleaning the floors. After skimming a few options, I finally mixed one up and got the job done.

Next on the DIY list, which had been there since before the pandemic, was making a new bar of soap out of all those annoying, tiny, dried soap slivers. I always feel guilty and wasteful tossing them in the garbage, even more so now that I know soap is such a powerful foe for Covid-19.

Once again, I did a few searches and skimmed some options. I was delighted to see there were so many options available, including ones to turn it into liquid soap, or fancy colored soap balls.

Feeling like I had the gist of the whole process, I started cutting up the soap bits. Using a makeshift double boiler, I melted all the bits together. A short time later, I glopped the new soap into some greased muffin tins to dry out for a few days. I’m not sure about the results, but it’s soap, made from soap. What could go wrong with that?

Lullaby

I never considered myself to be much of a singer, but all that changed the first time I heard my baby cry (and cry and cry). Without thinking or any hesitation, my mouth opened and I started singing. At first it was whatever tune popped into my head, in some kind of desperation to stop the crying. At times even making up lyrics to instrumental music. Other times I sang the same song over and over again.

Gradually, from some deep, primal part of my memory, I started to resurrect the songs that I remembered my father singing to me. I was a little surprised, but not completely, to discover that I manipulate all the songs the same way my father used to. I change lyrics, add verses, replace names, and jazz up the rhythms.

Like songbirds, we pass down songs to our young. Patiently sitting with the new generation, teaching them the melodies, rhythms, and rhymes that we inherited from our parents and close loved ones. And with each exchange, something new is added, enriching the experience for all involved.

Some years ago in my orchestra, we played a piece of music composed by ICOT, a group of Iranian composers in Toronto. At first, we were challenged to play the unfamiliar rhythms and pacing of the pieces because they were so different from what we were used to. I spoke with one of the composers about his piece. He explained that in his culture they are taught these rhythms and patterns from a young age, the kind of thing that is passed down from teacher to student.

There’s a reason why lullabies are universal (or nearly universal) in every culture around the world. It’s an accepted tradition to sing to babies as a way to comfort and soothe them. Music combines so many powerful elements like the use of calming tones, vibrations, and all the deep breathing required to carry a tune.

In addition to being soothing, lullabies are a way to form bonds, strengthen connections, and create new memories, or just have fun making up silly lyrics. The best part about singing to babies is that they are very forgiving when you’re out of tune or can’t quite remember all the words.

Happy Mothers’ Day!

Misinformation in the Time of the Pandemic

Even before the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) declared Covid-19 as a pandemic on March 11, all kinds of information about the new virus was spreading, making the term going “viral” a literal reality. In fact, even before the pandemic was announced, the W.H.O was already working on strategies to combat what it called an “infodemic.”

According to a Situation Report issued by the W.H.O. in February 2020, an infodemic is “…an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” (W.H.O., “Novel Coronavirus(2019-nCoV): Situation Report – 13,” 2 February 2020.) Since the new virus appeared, tracking how the disease is being reported on has become as important as tracking the disease itself.

The virus has been moving fast around the globe. Misinformation and disinformation about the virus has been spreading equally fast through social media, news outlets, and other channels of communication. It seems every day at least one new thing is discovered about the virus. At at time when it’s critical to know what’s going on when and where, it can be difficult to discern which information sources to trust. There’s nothing new about these issues in the digital age, but the consequences could be more severe.

In some instances, people are intentionally posting sensational headlines about Covid-19 to attract an audience and drive traffic to their sites. In other scenarios, people are re-posting myths and rumors, or broadcasting poor quality or outdated information. And sometimes people (unfortunately sometimes those in influential positions) are just plain ignorant. For example, many major news sources and influential people promoted the benefits of a drug called hydroxychloroquine without any controlled testing having been done. Demand for the drug increased dramatically before interest in it waned.

It’s amazing to me that with so much information available at our fingertips, I’ve heard and read about people who think Covid-19 is a hoax. It seems crazy but it is possible to find places on the internet to support this idea.

At all times, but especially during a pandemic, maintaining your information hygiene is as important as proper hand washing and social distancing. Find a few trustworthy sites, such as the W.H.O. or another recognized and acclaimed health institution, and get updates directly.

For more reading including a link to a guide on evaluating information, check out my post on “Disinformation Misinformation.”

Privacy in the Time of Pandemic: Video Calling

Last week I attended my first virtual birthday party. Through technology, we joined six different households in three different countries and three different time zones. I have to admit that our virtual party captured the essence and feel of a family gathering. Of course I would have preferred to see everybody in person, but for now it was better than nothing.

Due to social isolation requirements, many of us have been resorting to video calling more often. It can be a great alternative for connecting with people when you can’t be there physically.

However, since the pandemic requirements happened rather suddenly, it meant that things like convenience, and ease of use with video calling, were primary considerations. Sometimes they were even prioritized over things like privacy, quality, security, etc.

I love many aspects of video calling, but some features make me leery about using it. For example, the ability to record calls easily is something interesting to consider. For personal calls I wouldn’t be too worried about it, but in a business setting it could take on a new meaning.

As someone who manages information for a living, recording calls becomes a whole new type of medium that needs to be saved, managed, organized, described, etc. And in many cases, unless a transcript is available for the call, searching audio for content later can be tricky.

Another easily remedied hesitation I have is the video part. Once PCs started coming with built-in cameras, I started covering mine with heavy tape. I had read too many stories about cameras being turned on by spyware. Or of cameras accidentally being left on when they really should have been turned off. Covering the camera and setting options to default the camera to “off” are two strategies I employ.

My last hesitation has to do with the security. Ever since I read about a security flaw with Zoom last year that it would secretly reinstall itself on Macs and turn on the camera anytime, I’m extra careful about connecting to video calls. Also, a lot of articles were recently written about “zoombombing,” essentially when hackers were joining Zoom calls uninvited. I like that Zoom has made video calling so easy and uncomplicated, but this is a perfect example of when convenience and ease of use were prioritized over security and privacy.

Staying safe also means protecting yourself digitally while socially isolating.

Privacy in the Time of Pandemic: Contact Tracing

I’ve been reading about the various methods for contact tracing being used in an effort to manage Covid-19. Some Asian countries have been using technology to track where a person infected with Covid-19 has been. This data is then used to identify who else was in the area around the infected person within a certain time frame. People are instructed to quarantine and the government continues to track them to ensure they are compliant.

In the United States, humans are being trained to do contact tracing. Essentially this involves speaking with people recently diagnosed and getting a list of all the people they’ve interacted with in the preceding 48 hours. Then each person on the list is called and informed by the contact tracer that they may have been exposed to the virus, along with actions to take.

Recently, Google and Apple announced an alliance to create software that would enable governments to track (and hopefully prevent) the spread of Covid-19, “…with user privacy and security central to the design.” (https://www.apple.com/covid19/contacttracing/) The idea is that people would be able to opt-in to the system. If infected, the person would have to disclose voluntarily. Then other users in the system would be alerted whenever they were close to or interacted with the infected person.

As someone who lives in an urban area, I’m wary of something like this without understanding how it would work in densely populated areas. How much contact would I have to have to receive an alert on my phone? Would I get one alert, or many? In urban areas, people would probably be getting alerts non-stop. Sounds stressful.

The real challenge is that measures like this often start out as voluntary and end up being compulsory. Usually in the rush to get these initiatives going, silly things like confidentiality and how this massive volume of highly sensitive and private information would be managed, gets overlooked. It seems with technology we’re always giving up our control for convenience, or in this case, public safety.

Even though everybody is eager to do what they can to stop the virus, it’s hard to predict how people could potentially be stigmatized for having had the illness. Or maybe those who haven’t yet had it. Either way, it makes a strong case to protect our sensitive health information before we start divulging it or trusting tech company giants with it, for any reason.