Beware the rise of big data government

160,000 people dead, economies decimated and countries shuttered, all due to the coronavirus, to prevent further harm being done, governments are now turning to big data to try and keep their citizens under watch. This should alarm everyone. 

As governments gleam data from telecoms operators, digital advertising and through coronavirus apps that they themselves have created any sensible person would be sceptical about whether governments of the world will actually use this data for good reasons. This concern is especially warranted in the aftermath of the beatings drolled out to Silicon Valley over their usage of individual data. 

With society increasingly sceptical of the way Google, Amazon and Facebook collect large amounts of our personal data in a manner that is often hard to decipher, the question must be asked as to why governments of the world shouldn’t come under the same scrutiny. Yes, we may be in the midst of a pandemic, but that is no excuse to stop the democratic scrutiny of elected officials to ensure they are not using our data for nefarious means. 

This is especially true in countries where governments have a track record of failing to keep digital information safe, or lack the expertise of Big Tech, and will most likely for the most part be accountable only to themselves as to when they stop collecting such data. 

As the old saying goes, during times of emergency people are willing to give up vast amounts of rights and liberties to feel safe, but eventually this pandemic will pass, and when it does, people will want a return to normal. It is hard to see how normal can return if the governments of the world are still holding onto vast swathes of their citizens’ data and using it to shape policy that could detrimentally impact the world’s movements.

Policymakers have tried to set limitations to what they can and cannot do though. Foremost amongst them the European Commission which has just published a set of (voluntary) guidelines for creating coronavirus apps which includes an effort to put national privacy watchdogs in charge and introduce strict time limits for how long data can be stored. Governments have also said they will stick to existing data protection rules though in places like Poland, officials have said they will hang onto information for up to six years.

Of course, this should all be taken with a pinch of salt.

We are in the midst of a pandemic, governments and health services have been found wanting and people are dying. In such an atmosphere rights to privacy can often be disregarded as secondary concerns, especially when the public themselves are demanding immediate responses to the big questions facing us this time around. The temptation to take as much data as possible as quickly as possible will be too hard to resist for governments, especially if they can use it to try and protect their citizens at least in the short term.

And as ever, trying to do something quickly without much oversight will lead to potential security breaches as hackers and general lowlifes try to make a quick buck from panicked citizens and politicians, especially if governments start outsourcing their Covid-19 tracking tools to local tech firms who themselves are under pressure.

We are in unprecedented times, but we cannot let governments seize all of our data without oversight. The consequences if we do are hard to imagine.

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