Spit into a cup when you land in an airport, and your DNA is stored. Every phone in every city talks to every other nearby device, their exchanges floating somewhere in the ether. Cross-border travel is enabled only by governments sharing data about millions of private movements.
These are all possible visions of a future that the coronavirus pandemic has rushed on us — decades of change effected, it sometimes feels, in just weeks. But a lurch into an even more intense era of mass data collection — the vast hoovering up of who went near whom and when, who is healthy to travel, and even scraps of personal DNA languishing in databases — appears to be on the verge of becoming the new reality.
Will this grave new world intensify our desire for privacy, or extinguish what little left of it we had?
It took the attacks of September 11, 2001 to shove aside the previous decade’s phobia of mass surveillance, and usher in an era where many of us imagined the state was probably skimming our emails, in exchange for keeping us safe from terror.
Over the next 15 years, billions of people agreed to a tacit deal where Facebook or Google were permitted to learn a staggering amount about them in exchange for free access to messaging apps, news, and shared pictures of a baby dancing, or a dog driving a car.
Eventually, that mutated into the heights exemplified by Cambridge Analytica — private companies hoovering up the online lives of tens of millions in order to try to sway elections.
But the challenge presented by Covid-19 — and the urgent need to trace contacts and movements — represents another scale of intimacy. South Korea located over 10,000 cellphones near its latest outbreak and texted them to suggest a coronavirus test. The UK government has toyed with a centralized database of movements and health records, secured by government cyber-spies, able potentially to see who has been sick and who they have been near. Russia and many others have issued QR codes. China is putting surveillance cameras right outside people’s doors.
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