Eroding Privacy During Coronavirus Pandemic


We live in a world where the concept of privacy is all but a myth, a reality that people only a couple of decades ago would probably have been horrified of. As the Coronavirus lockdown shifts how the world operates, online solutions to numerous obstacles are charging to the forefront. Some of these changes are, however, questionable.

In one of the smaller cases, Zoom has taken the world by storm. This video conferencing program became popular almost overnight, with its userbase skyrocketing. With this increased exposure came increased scrutiny, and behind the hype for its convenience and ease of use were the red flags of user privacy and security. While many of these concerns are being looked into and will hopefully have a fix, it is certainly a situation that should remind people to take a deeper dive into the digital products they take advantage of and be aware of what exactly is happening behind the scenes.

In a more serious case, Australian university students have raised concerns of the compulsory use of an “anti-cheating” AI known as Proctorio, Its purpose is to prevent students from cheating in online exams, which educational institutions are turning to for health reasons – a reasonable move given the current restrictions and risks. However, the program these students are being told to install is extremely invasive. It films students and uses facial recognition. This, combined with other factors like keystroke monitoring, assesses a student’s “suspiciousness” and allows the appropriate teaching staff access to all the data and video should there be any issues.

Frankly, this is utterly absurd, and the students are absolutely right to protest widespread adoption of this program. The Australian National University (ANU) has responded by saying that other universities have been utilising it for some time now, and the University of Queensland (UQ) has suggested students who don’t wish to use the software at home do so in a suitable location. These are not justifiable responses.

Just because other universities around the world use it does not mean our students, who wish to protect their privacy, should be subject to it, and it’s not simply a matter of keeping it out of the home. This is sensitive and, literally, personal information – universities should not be carrying out such measures against their students’ wishes or consent, and doing so through a third party (whether their data security record is shiny or not) is obviously a step too far for many students and the various student groups and Unions. That this information has come up after the census date (to drop out before incurring penalties) has not gone unnoticed either.

Obviously academic integrity is something that should be taken seriously, but there would surely be alternatives to tracking the movements of students during exams. Online exams in various forms have taken place without the use of software like this, so perhaps universities need to adjust their methods of examination to match the circumstances, rather than infringing privacy rights to enforce traditional methods.

The last one I’ll mention is the government’s proposed tracking app. While it allegedly does not track someone’s location, it does track your proximity to other people who have the app downloaded on their mobile devices. The information it does collect will be stored locally (and encrypted), but will be uploaded to a government database should you test positive for Coronavirus. Who has access to this data, and for how long, is vague, as is the basis for the app. It is, so far, not compulsory (although rumours that it could be have sparked incredible backlash online), but if not enough people use it, it will be useless.

Given the government’s track record of handling anything involving security, technology, or privacy has been abysmal, public trust in the app is likely to be low. Even a number of MPs have said they will not be downloading it, which is telling. While the potentially benign process of quickly informing people that they may have Coronavirus sounds good, the uncertain privacy issues and usefulness of such an app has security experts hesitant.

What it amounts to is a collection of data regarding your private interactions. Forgive me for being cynical if I don’t believe the government, no matter how “secure” the app is or how much they promise they won’t retain the gathered data, when they beg us to download something. Like with MyHealthRecord, I think I’ll be opting out of this one. My private life, whether it is the people I meet or my health records, is not the concern of any level of government.

Admittedly this is a rather brief (and rushed) rundown of a few privacy issues that have cropped up recently, but hopefully it highlights the fact we cannot allow this crisis to make us complacent regarding our privacy and data. Any measures the government takes should be monitored closely, especially after we have got the situation under control. Once an entity gives itself power, it is generally reluctant to relinquish it. Similarly, corporate and educational institutions should always ensure that privacy is a top priority, although with the former that is a battle consumers will struggle with.


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