Privacy under siege

By Muna Al-Fuzai

Talking about privacy and individual freedoms is a controversial topic among supporters and opponents, and each of them has their reasons according to circumstances. But nowadays it has become a double-edged sword. Supporters believe that privacy should be protected in all cases, while those who are against it believe that this is not the case when it public health is threatened. I think this issue will always be debatable for various reasons, mostly political, but with the advent of COVID-19, it has become more intense and the argument has become more complicated and confusing.

Amnesty International has warned that applications to track coronavirus patients may collect in-depth personal information, claiming that the privacy and security of thousands of people is at risk by the new platforms. The organization is saying that the programs differ in their features, but can generally be classified into two categories – decentralized applications, where data is kept on the device, and centralized applications where data is kept on a separate server.

Meanwhile, privacy advocates tend to agree that it is better to store information locally on a device than send it to a separate server, but I wonder what kind of information should be classified as confidential in the world of social media and the Internet.

Amnesty International reviewed software from 11 countries in the world, including Kuwait, used in applications on the phone linked to an electronic bracelet to track contact with people who may be infected with the coronavirus in home quarantine to ensure that they do not mix with others for a specific period of time. When the home quarantine period is over, the person is required to return the electronic bracelet to health authorities in the country.

Other countries have used similar applications, such as Austria and Switzerland, but they are decentralized models for tracking contact via Bluetooth. Other applications for example, use a centralized system, but information is only downloaded voluntarily with users consent or at the request of a health authority. However, Amnesty said that there are still concerns about these applications. Personal information includes the individual’s health status, nationality, age, gender and travel history.

Personally, I am a supporter of privacy of individuals and protecting them from harm, especially with regards to their personal life and security, but are we tackling this issue from a political and human perspective or health-wise or both? Is age and gender confidential information nowadays I am not a proponent of violating privacy, and I respect this vehemently, but I wonder which data that can pose a danger when exposed publicly.

I understand how some people can be careless by disregarding protection guidance and deliberately mixing with others. I agree that in such cases the society must obtain a tool such as these applications to protect healthy people from possible harm temporarily.

I have more concerns about keeping track of individuals affairs through electronic systems throughout the year via social media, for instance. Most of us today have one or more accounts in these electronic programs, for which you must include data about yourself when registering such as name, nationality, country and age.

In such accounts you can and may keep a record of videos, ideas, stories or opinions related to your life and anything else you wish. You may document your travels and it even retains your memories from past years and reminds you of them. I know that it requires your permission before reposting, but in reality everything that is published on the Internet remains in existence for years. But I have not seen any protesters.

Some may argue that what is published on social media is with the consent of the persons themselves. I think this issue is more complicated and overlapping, and the topic of health privacy today is not spying on the personal info of individuals without their knowledge. We are surrounded with many electronics platforms that we only know very little about. We are great users of computers, but how many of us know how to fix it when broken.

I believe that the issue of individual privacy is important and I hope that these organizations follow up the matter when the coronavirus crisis is over, and not just an application that has info that is likely to be found on any social media account.

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