Data protection: The pandemic shows the two-tier society
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought existing injustices to the fore in many areas – including healthcare, income and employment, and housing. Our digital world and personal privacy are no exception. As we all had to adapt to new work, study and life realities, the digital privacy divide has been exposed – with greater consequences than ever before.
However, privacy should be a fundamental right, not a luxury. The technologies, products, and freedom of choice to protect their devices and personal information online are inaccessible and affordable for too many people – and often these technologies have built-in disadvantages when it comes to race and gender, for example.
An example of this is exam supervisory software. It is said to only be used to catch schoolchildren cheating while taking exams at home. For this purpose, the test subjects and their surroundings (by AI, subcontractors, professors, etc.) are monitored via their webcams and microphones. It even collects information about what websites they visit, what apps they have installed, and possibly even files that they have stored on their computer.
A student concerned about his privacy reportedthat his professor advised him to install software on his private computer before taking an exam. While some students can afford a second device, others have to share a computer with the whole family, which also stores personal data.
Similarly, many employers insist that their employees turn on the cameras when video conferencing at home. That practically forces you to invite colleagues to your own home. While some can use a safe, neutral room, others only have access to a room with private or personal items.
These tools may seem “neutral” at first glance, but in fact they affect people’s privacy differently – depending on their class, gender, and other characteristics.
The fundamental digital divide itself – differences in access to technology and connectivity – also has a significant impact on digital privacy. For example, many people at home do not have a broadband connection. Hence, some are forced to go to school, work, or even telemedicine Access public WiFi networks. However, such free public networks are notoriously poor in terms of security and privacy. In this case, users run the risk that if the encryption is inadequate, the data traffic can be monitored by the operator or even by other participants in the network.
At the same time, students who do not have a device for distance learning have limited options and in many cases have to fall back on free offers. For example, Google made Chromebooks available to students in need free of charge – clearly a generous offer. But when students have no choice but to use the connected Google services, privacy concerns also arise.
New Mexico sued Googlebecause the educational products allegedly invade children’s privacy and track students’ activities outside of the classroom. Low-income students shouldn’t have to disclose data just to exercise their basic right to education.
For those who cannot work from home, the increased surveillance at work in the name of health protection also means a disadvantage in terms of privacy. Ride-sharing employees, for example, must provide a photo of themselves on which they wear a maskto be allowed to start their work. This is in contrast to many employees in the service industry who would lose their much-needed income if they did not adhere to these guidelines.
Often there is no way out – other than resigning. However, this is out of the question for many who are already in financial difficulties due to the pandemic. So these people have to use systems that take little care of their privacy. Worse still: Such systems have unequal effects on different groups of people – for example on Face recognition algorithms that discriminate against certain races or genders.
The digital privacy divide has long been an overlooked injustice. The pandemic and its impact on our lives and work on the internet have only made this clear. Privacy is a human right. Individuals are entitled to it no less than others, and no one should have to give it up just to get an education or to earn a living.
To close the gap, everyone must recognize this fundamental right – from technologists and designers to employers and governments. It is important that everyone takes this principle into account in their decision-making, rather than looking at it afterwards. With our lives increasingly reliant on technology in every aspect, protecting our identities and data online has never been more important. (bw)
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