Rethinking the value of privacy in times of COVID-19

Posted by Pierre-Antoine Ullmo & Jaime Aguilera Garcia

April 20th, 2020

Tech companies and governments are considering the use of new technologies for tracking the spread of coronavirus. Decisions that have been or will be taken raise concerns about privacy laws and the consequences of surveillance on individual and collective freedom.

In a recent article, Jonathan Zittrain, Professor of International Law and Computer Science at Harvard University, mentioned the example of Clearview AI, a startup willing to partner with state agencies to provide tracking services to mitigate the effect of coronavirus disease 2019.

Those familiar with Zittrain’s work will remember Zittrain fuelled the debate regarding consent and questioned the ambiguous role of GAFA, which on the one hand prevents abusive use of private data and on the other hand largely facilitates access to these data. Zittrain beautifully analogises it as a:

… [a] toxic waste site whose guard looked bemusedly on while an “entrepreneur” made repeated trips to haul away thousands of barrels.

Have we lost any control of our privacy? Are we condemned to live in a “no privacy” world, where the “right to data” is greater than the “right to privacy?

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia, Professor of Computer Science at Paris Sorbonne University and EXP author, refers to the notion of sousveillance which was invented by Steve Mann to describe the present state of modern technological societies where anybody may take photos or videos of any person or event and then diffuse the information freely all over the world arguing that, as a consequence, the separation between the public and private sphere tends to disappear.

Zittrain elaborates two scenarios about the public and private sphere: a Pseudoworld and a Trancriptworld.

In a Pseudoworld, we use tools to keep our identities hidden and to remain in the private sphere. However, having an online presence without using our real name is not a guarantee of privacy. In a Transcriptworld, everyone is public and those who can’t or won’t identify themselves are excluded.

Pseudoworld citizens hide their identities. People in a Transcriptworld seek to present themselves better than they are. A Pseudoworld would come about if the legal frameworks for protecting privacy weren’t updated. A Transcriptworld would end up an “authoritarian nightmare” if restrictions on collection and use of data were not imposed.

Coming back to the COVID-19 crisis, a (new) moral dilemma arises: whether to activate all possible resources to tackle the health crisis in disregard of a golden shrine of citizenship, as is our right to privacy, or to only activate resources that fall within regulatory boundaries. Zittrain believes all resources can be useful so long as we always bear in mind the stakes: how do we avoid Clearview AI setting a precedent with regards to internet privacy?


To know more:

Jonathan Zittrain 

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It

(Yale University Press and Penguin UK, 2008)

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia

The Generalized Sousveillance Society

First Published August 23, 2010 Other


Photo by Henry & Co. from Pexels

Created by Exp Editors


EXP-Editions is launched in
an era of great complexity and rampant disinformation. More and more often, experts are derided as untrustworthy or elitist when liars and bullshitters manage to capture public attention. At EXP, we can’t imagine a world without trusted experts. Our mission is to engage certified experts to produce original contents on some of the world’s crucial issues. This blog is the place where we address the meaning and representation of knowledge with original posts and curated articles. Our objective is to sustain a continuous dialogue about the value of trusted information and facts, scientific knowledge, rigorous research.

© 2020 Exp. All Rights Reserved.