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COVID-19 could set a new norm for surveillance and privacy

App developers are creating tools to monitor people when they shop and work, despite lacking proof that it works or has safeguards to protect your data.

A thermal imaging camera smart system screen shows passengers' body temperatures in Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
Rahman Roslan/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the ways we interact and has everyone thinking more about our health and well-being. But that shift in mindset means that daily activities like going grocery shopping or simple things like standing in an elevator will come with even more surveillance strings attached. 

The response by governments and the tech industry to the coronavirus outbreak has already raised many concerns about privacy from contact tracing apps, mobile location data tracking and police surveillance drones. The outbreak has also brought new privacy issues, as companies beef up surveillance with tech like thermal cameras and facial recognition in preparation for when people return to their everyday lives. 

Surveillance technology has slowly integrated into our daily lives, with facial recognition getting added as a "convenience" feature for casinos and ordering food. The coronavirus has sped up that process, in the name of public health. Shopping centers have long used Bluetooth trackers to determine crowd sizes and whereabouts, and the pandemic has shifted its use to enable contact tracing

Vantiq, a software company that builds a platform for developers and businesses to roll out their apps, has been repurposing its tools to focus on technology tied to tracing COVID-19. Since March, the company has built tools to enable the tracking of COVID-19 through facial recognition and thermal cameras being used by private companies. Its tools have been used in social distancing programs like an app to reserve a spot at a food market. 

The company and its tools represent the double-sided nature of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The technology promises to help, but it also comes at the cost of your privacy, experts warn. More worrisome is the notion that the pandemic-driven level of surveillance becomes the new normal. Privacy advocates like NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have warned about government overreach, arguing that these current measures won't be scaled back once the public health crisis has ended. 

With governments beginning to ease shelter-in-place lockdowns, and businesses reopening under extra precautions, many will turn to technology for detection and enforcement. The future of surveillance in daily life will be decided in the next few years, with public safety and COVID-19 driving the debate. 

"We always risk that if you create a new set of norms about what to expect on privacy, those norms last," said Mark Surman, executive director of Firefox maker Mozilla. "We could be left with a legacy. The choice to make now is what legacy we want."

A spike in demand

The demand for surveillance technology like thermal scanners has surged because of COVID-19.  

In April, the Washington Post reported that FLIR Systems, which makes most of the world's thermal cameras, saw its stock rise 60% because of increased demand.

Companies are using software to monitor employees working from home. Students are also being watched remotely through exam monitoring software, despite privacy concerns about the practice

Before the pandemic, Vantiq had been supplying companies with building monitoring tools to detect environmental or safety issues. Vantiq CEO Marty Sprinzen said that Softbank was its biggest partner and had been working with it to make smart building apps. 

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The company doesn't build the apps itself but provides the toolsets for partners to create what they're looking for. And the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in demand for its tools. 

"We have not seen our pipeline grow that quickly, ever. We're talking about multi millions in dollars," Sprinzen said. "We're being approached more frequently than ever because the pressure of getting these COVID apps is needed immediately." 

He noted that these apps are typically built within 10 days, and the company sees most of its sales opportunities in North America. 

Some of the apps that it's helping to build includes software for virtual queuing, which the Canadian software firm Bits in Glass is developing. The idea is to download an app for a store and reserve a time slot for shopping, to help prevent crowds from growing. 

The app would also be able to track how many people are at the store at any time and alert managers when it's overcrowded. James Allen, Vantiq's global head of field enablement, described it as an "OpenTable for real-time events."

The company also helped build a "real-time coronavirus tracking system" called GiConnect in China. The app relies on thermal cameras and facial recognition, and has been sold to a mining company and retail stores in the country, Allen said. 

The facial recognition is designed to detect whether people are wearing masks, and the thermal cameras detect fevers. Vantiq boasts that its thermal camera tools are used in more than 7,000 elevators in Shanghai, and expects it to be in up to 250,000 elevators in the country. 

The technology is designed to provide for enforcement and tracking in public places like office buildings and airports. Allen described several scenarios where if someone with a fever had been detected, the facial recognition cameras would log who the person is, and security staff would be deployed. The software could also follow them around the building and log the faces of other people who were near the person with the fever, he said.

"If someone enters a building and it turns out they're sick, we want to know where they've been, who they've been in contact with and where do we need to disinfect," Allen said. 

No safeguards, no proof

Despite these capabilities, Vantiq said it doesn't take responsibility for when the technology doesn't work. It doesn't check for false positives with thermal cameras or facial recognition and leaves that to its app partners. 

Experts have noted that thermal cameras aren't an effective tool for detecting the coronavirus, pointing out issues with when fevers appear in COVID-19 patients and the fact that many people with the disease do not actually have symptoms. 

That includes Vantiq's own Allen, who shared that he had the coronavirus but not a fever. The company said it only helps build the app, not maintain it or ensure that it's being properly used. 

"We don't get involved in that. We assume that they are addressing the issues," Sprinzen said. "I understand the problem, and we don't address that." 

He compared it to how people wouldn't hold JavaScript responsible for malicious tools created using the coding language. 

That hands-off approach also applies to how the data collected is handled. The virtual queuing app, for example, could use the data for marketing and advertising purposes if its maker so desired. 

While Vantiq compared the tool to OpenTable, which lets you reserve seats at restaurants, the dining service's privacy policy also notes that it can share your data with marketers and partner companies. 

Bits In Glass, the developers working with Vantiq on the virtual queuing app, didn't respond to a request for comment. 

There are no federal laws in the US on how your data privacy is handled. A group of Republican lawmakers in April proposed the COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act, looking to address that issue.  

Sprinzen said the company doesn't track how its partners handle data, noting that Vantiq is just a developing platform and not the ones making the apps. He noted that Vantiq wouldn't even know if its partners were violating privacy standards. 

"It could almost be a lack of privacy if we were to check on how the applications were being used," Sprinzen said. "Could that change if we find that our technology is being used in some way? That's feasible, but that's not something we've thought about until you've brought this up." 

The hands-off approach also applies to the effectiveness of the tools Vantiq is helping create. Sprinzen said the company doesn't know if its tools are actually saving lives, and noted in a follow-up email without any proof that while the company doesn't track the data processed from its tools, "it stands to reason that technology -- both ours and that of other companies -- is in fact saving lives in this situation."  

'The genie's out of the bottle'

Privacy advocates argue that the coronavirus pandemic marks a crucial time to decide what standards to have in place on how our data is handled. 

The American Civil Liberties Union has pointed out that privacy and public health go hand in hand: if people don't trust the technology to protect their data, they won't use it. 

"We're at a crossroads where we can rush into this and see [helping] public health means we lose on privacy, or we can leverage the fact that this is about public health and can do it better by doing privacy by design," Mozilla's Surman said. 

For others, the post-pandemic privacy norms have already been decided. Sprinzen said he believes there's no going back after COVID-19, and technology like thermal cameras and facial recognition will become widely accepted because of the pandemic. 

"It's like what happened after 9/11 -- the security systems are going to stick around," Sprinzen said. "The genie is out of the bottle. That kind of sensing is not going away." 

Surman doesn't believe that the world has crossed a point of no return yet on surveillance norms. Police in Connecticut, for example, dropped "pandemic drone" test flights after public outcry on privacy issues. 

Any decisions made in the next few years for COVID-19 will all have a privacy implication attached, Surman said. And it'll take constant vigilance to ensure that the privacy norms established for the future are actually protecting people, he said. 

"People are coming out with opportunistic, unregulated Band-aids," Surman said. "Apps for waiting in lines, facial recognition for masks aren't going to fall under the oversight of government. If a market emerges for those, we may end up with a creeping low-level increase of surveillance that we need to find a way to keep tabs on and rope in."

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.