As tech-medico interplays intensify across the planet, digital volumes of healthcare data should surge exponentially soon. Much of the public healthcare data is freely available, accessible and shareable. However, tech giants hold monopolistic controls over sets of private data, related to their users, their locations and their contacts, among others.
Quite unlikely these tech players will open up their private data chests for contact-tracing and Covid-tracking. A good reason why they will be at loggerheads with governments soon. Extracting private data from tech giants will be a Minotaurean task, nearly impossible.
Mercenaries Hawking Data
At the same time, it cannot be said with certainty private data-possessing tech titans will not sell such personal information and data to market research organisations, covetous corporates, tracking-tracing entities and manipulating governments. Where does it leave us? Data users, both corporates and individuals, will clamour for making their personal data secure. Despite unanimity on this issue, despite holy pronouncements by courts and governments, grey areas will remain.
After all, it is in the interest of authoritarian governments data protection remains flexional. Such fluidity will offer the needed loophole for mercenary private healthcare providers to hawk the data in their possession to paying info vultures. The unsavoury Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal is fresh in our collective memories. Prior to that, Google’s Google Flu was the target of privacy activists. Nothing has been done since to address data privacy issues.
Demanding Data Democrats
Social media players and search engines may thump their chests and boast of having launched anonymised data. But, it will not work, what with the absence of clear rules for anonymization and making data secure. Google Flu Trends may be an effective tracking data, but what use when these rules are far off. Muddle headedness will be the norm when it comes to making data privacy a reality.
Medical records will be increasingly digitised by Covid hospitals, which are generally run by governments. Patients and their families trust these hospitals when they fill out forms with personal details and demographic data. This trust could be breached anytime as public healthcare outfits become easy preys to marauding marketeers and manipulating politicians.
This data privacy concern may force data democrats and privacy champions to demand the creation of an autonomous constitutional authority responsible for data privacy governance. Such an authority will be trusted with user data, but will function as a data-privacy watchdog as well. Will this authority see the light of the day with app autocracy and tech tyranny looming largely over us?
There is another danger we face in the post-pandemic environment. Dissent-intolerant governments will be tempted to set aside privacy laws in the name of Covid emergency. These governments will bring in surveillance programmes and define the contours of their controlled democracies.
Why special surveillance programmes? United Kingdom’s contact-tracing app from its National Health Service may well do this job tomorrow. India’s contact-tracing mobile app Aarogya Setu may permanently track the employees in its economy for reasons other than Covid. Singapore’s Bluetooth-based TraceTogether app may be used to generate false alarms for ulterior motives. Iran is doing this already.
Expect More Violations
China provides a foretaste of privacy violations which could assail its citizens in a post-pandemic scenario. The dragon is curtailing freedom of its denizens to move by using their own mobile handsets. More, it is using their digital payments data to track their shopping expeditions. These have the nasty habit of staying permanently in the rule books.
The scenario post-Covid is dreadful. Privacy-violating and data-thirsting governments will run amok to trample democracy, perhaps using equally culpable corporates as instruments of complicity. What use contact-tracing without capacity-testing? Perhaps there is use to these beneficiaries. Ask the lockdown-thirsting leaders. Ask the data-hungry demons. Ask the dissent-hating dictators. Ask the tracking-tracing tyrants. You are sure to hear the poignant post-pandemic story of Data Privacy.