The corona crisis has upended many things about our lives, but in some cases it just teased out truths that have been waiting to seize center stage. One of them is that in the digital era we all face the peril of breaches of privacy.
Under cover of corona some countries have introduced big-brother tactics including snoopy apps to follow people around, track whether infected people are maintaining isolation, and helpfully advise you if you have come near any of them.
In my home country of Israel one such app is voluntary, but others are not.
New public health or work from home tools may mean well, but such measures can be abused, and they can raise ethical questions. We do not know how society will view COVID-19 survivors — will they be hailed as immune superpeople, or shunned as the lepers of yore. Either way, is this information one owes others? Do we want it getting out?
With our lives moving more and more online, such questions will become critical. What parts of our lives do we want to keep private? What data on our phones can we afford to lose control of? Do we in fact owe any of it to the public?
I see this as coming down to five buckets, and it might be helpful to map it out:
Medical: There’s so much more here than our COVID-19 status, which in fact may be a case where perhaps we do — as with any infectious disease — owe the community an accounting. But think about your medical history (including HIV or STDs — and perhaps cancers which could result in discrimination). What about prescriptions, from statins to Viagra. And, of course, your mental health history. In some societies the wrong value on that variable can get you shunned for life.
Financial: You obviously don’t want your bank account going public, do you? Well, what about payslips or invoices or interest or inheritance income? What about tax returns (only US presidential candidates have been expected to make those public, and a recent famous one refused). Or your investment portfolio, or net worth. Having that become public could cause anything from shaming to blackmail to unwanted visits from relatives.
Academic: As with financial issues, this is a realm where there is inelegant competition, some occasional untruthfulness, data whose publication could cause various forms of damage, embarrassment or annoyance. That might include your high school or college transcripts with your GPA; your SAT and other standardized test scores; or, horror of horrors, your IQ results.
Personal Interactions: Especially in our sensitive era, many people walk on eggshells as far as their public persona is concerned. It is with friends and family that they might let their hair down. Some things said in the circle of trust could be seen as inappropriate in the public domain. And yet interactions with that circle of trust are increasingly digital — and during the crisis almost exclusively so. I’m talking about text messages, GChats and WhatsApps, personal email, message boards, chats on Zoom and other conferencing tools. If you did not post it publicly yourself, chances are you don’t want it shared with a wider audience.
Sexual/Romantic: We all know how damaging unwanted images becoming public can be (if confused, ask former congressman Anthony Weiner). But it also touches on questions of sexual preferences, on dating history, the use of apps like Tinder, perhaps indiscretions and infidelities as well. Mainly, of course, it involves the plutonium bomb of privacy peril — your browsing history. It is a superbucket of vulnerability hovering over all others and drawing them together.
Each one of us would benefit by laying this out and considering how our customers and products fit, where our weak points are, where key information is stored and how well it is protected.
The results could shock you. But awareness is the first step. Your customer will appreciate you having their backs, and helping to keep their private lives private during this unprecedented and challenging time.
Yoav Degani is CEO of MyPrivacy, the world’s most comprehensive privacy app for mobile phones, and an entrepreneur and tech mentor based in Tel Aviv.