Privacy and digital ethics after the pandemic

As the pandemic abates, the challenge will be to maintain the positive aspects that can come from an increase in digitalization, while minimizing the risks and harms, and attempting to recover any ground lost. This path is replete with possible pitfalls.

One concern is the increasing closeness between technology companies and governments. Tech billionaire and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has, for instance, called for “unprecedented partnerships between government and industry”8. Palantir, the controversial Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed company, is now collaborating with both the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the US Department of Health and Human Services9. The NHS, in particular, gave Palantir all kinds of data about patients, employees and members of the public — from contact information to details of gender, race, work, physical and mental health conditions, political and religious affiliation, and past criminal offences10.
Prominent among the many privacy challenges citizens face in the wake of the pandemic are data deals that might consolidate widespread surveillance as a requirement to access primary services and opportunities. Given big tech’s track record in violating people’s privacy, its recent interest in expanding into the health sector is particularly alarming. Amazon’s new Pharmacy promises 80% discounts, for example, which suggests that sensitive data may be of more interest to the retailer than immediate profits11.A related concern is that, in their effort to defeat China in the race towards the development of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI), Western countries might continue to allow the trade in personal data, and may even be enticed to further liberalize personal data for the purposes of financial gain or competitive advantage12. Such an approach would be a mistake. True progress is not achieved by forsaking human rights. Beating China in a race to the moral bottom would not be a victory for the West. Instead, countries need to close ranks in defence of human rights. Diplomacy will be crucial in the coming years to meet the biggest challenges beyond the coronavirus pandemic, which include climate change and the regulation of digital technologies. Countries must try to come together and reach agreements on minimum standards and rules regarding cybersecurity, privacy and the governance of AI. If enough countries unite, they can make it attractive for China to cooperate.

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