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Politics

In 2020, COVID-19 derailed the privacy debate in the U.S.

From biometric monitoring to unregulated contact tracing, the crisis opened up new privacy vulnerabilities that regulators did little to address.

In 2020, COVID-19 derailed the privacy debate in the U.S.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says the COVID-19 pandemic has become a "cash grab" for surveillance tech companies.

Photo: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

As the coronavirus began its inexorable spread across the United States last spring, Adam Schwartz, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, worried the virus would bring with it another scourge: mass surveillance.

"A lot of really bad ideas were being advanced here in the U.S. and a lot of really bad ideas were being actually implemented in foreign countries," Schwartz said.

In China, where the virus first took hold, the country had already begun using draconian smartphone-based tools to track sick people's whereabouts and effectively force them to stay home. In Israel, lawmakers rushed through a proposal to give government officials access to Israelis' location data. As the White House met with tech giants including Facebook and Google to discuss ways they could help, Schwartz and others feared the U.S. might be next in allowing fear of the virus to subvert basic civil liberties.

Nine months into the crisis, Schwartz said, the "worst ideas" being deployed internationally have yet to take hold in the U.S. But that doesn't mean COVID-19 hasn't created a slew of smaller, but still insidious privacy setbacks for Americans who, in recent years, have become increasingly wary of all the intrusive ways that governments and private companies use their personal data. Since March, corporate offices and college campuses have been flooded with biometric scanners, employers have deployed software that lets them remotely monitor workers' keystrokes and giant corporations like Ticketmaster have contemplated linking people's negative COVID-19 tests to their tickets to gain entry to future events.

While many of these precautions are well-meaning attempts to preserve public safety and to use technology to get the economy up and running again, they can come at a cost to personal privacy. And yet, the crisis has once again relegated privacy legislation to the back burner in Congress as lawmakers battle over how to handle dueling health and economic disasters.

Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, says the COVID-19 pandemic has become a "cash grab" for surveillance tech companies. "I think this has been the most dangerous moment for civil rights since 9/11," he said. "When you're faced with impossible choices like whether or not to keep schools open and deprive kids of an education or put them at risk, it's so easy to be taken in by the allure of magical thinking and startups that say if you just install this tracking device you'll somehow be able to avoid doing the impossible."

Contact tracing has been a source of concern, as governments across the country work with a slew of private firms to manage manual contact tracing with no real guardrails in place. "People by the thousands are telling contact tracers where they've been, who they're with, and we don't think there are sufficient ways to secure that data, especially when private contractors or for-profit corporations are helping," Schwartz said.

In New York, Cahn's organization supported legislation that would have protected New Yorkers from having their contact tracing data used against them in court or administrative proceedings. That bill passed over the summer, but Governor Andrew Cuomo has yet to sign it into law, leaving that information vulnerable. "In most states, police or ICE can get contact tracing data with a subpoena," Cahn said. "This not only creates a privacy threat, but it's a public health nightmare. There are millions of Americans who would second guess whether to fully disclose their potential contacts."

Apple and Google partnered on a contact-tracing tool that went to extremes to ensure people's data wouldn't be centrally stored or shared with either company or with the government. But health officials, at least early on, scoffed at the limitations. "Digital apps and technology have struggled in the in-between space of wanting to track the path of this disease, this virus, while at the same time really struggling with very real privacy concerns," said Malkia Devich-Cyril, founding director and senior fellow at the advocacy group MediaJustice.

The imminent rollout of a vaccine presents even trickier questions, like what happens if businesses or governments begin requiring people to prove they've been vaccinated in order to access certain spaces. California's legislature already defeated a bill that would have created a blockchain-based system to create what Schwartz calls "immunity passports." EFF argued that requiring people to hand over their smartphones to prove their immunity would open them up to other privacy invasions and would require people to have a smartphone in the first place. "We view this as a horrible, horrible idea," Schwartz said, noting that EFF will be "in the trenches" if any similar proposals arise.

Over the course of 2020, there have been other, subtler attitudinal shifts too. In the spring, news outlets that, in the past, criticized apps for surreptitiously tracking and selling people's location data, suddenly began tapping that same data to track where people were actually staying at home or whether anti-shutdown protesters might be spreading the virus. "We think there's a lot of COVID-washing going on," Schwartz said.

That COVID-washing hasn't been uniform though, Devich-Cyril said, noting that Black and brown communities with a long history of being surveilled remain wary of that kind of intrusion. "The simple fact of a medical disaster is not enough to turn people away from their desire for basic freedoms and rights," Devich-Cyril said.

Still, despite these setbacks, privacy advocates did score some wins in the midst of the chaos. On Election Day, Portland, Maine succeeded in banning facial recognition technology. Michigan voted to require police to seek search warrants before accessing electronic data. And California passed Proposition 24, a measure that rewrites the California Consumer Privacy Act and gives Californians new rights over protecting their data.

"That is the story of privacy in 2020," said Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, which backed Prop. 24. "That was a significant step forward." It's worth noting that not all privacy groups celebrated the passage of Prop. 24. Some, like the American Civil Liberties Union, opposed it over concerns that it created new privacy loopholes for businesses.

Schwartz is at least relieved that so many of the "bad ideas" that emerged at the beginning of 2020 have not been adopted in the U.S. But as the pandemic rages on through 2021, the fight for privacy in the face of a global health crisis will undoubtedly continue.

Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

Google, Apple, Uber and Lyft have now all told employees they won't have to come back to the office before October as COVID-19 case counts continue to tick back up. Facebook, Google and Uber are now requiring workers to get vaccinated before coming to the office, and Twitter — also requiring vaccines — went so far as to shut down its reopened offices on Wednesday, and put future office reopenings on hold.

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Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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Stella Garber
Stella Garber is Trello's Head of Marketing. Stella has led Marketing at Trello for the last seven years from early stage startup all the way through its acquisition by Atlassian in 2017 and beyond. Stella was an early champion of remote work, having led remote teams for the last decade plus.
Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

Vendors for Nike and even Chinese brands were harassed for not donating enough to Henan.

Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

The No. 1 rule of sales: Don't praise your competitor's product. Rule No. 2: When you are put to a loyalty test by nationalist trolls, forget the first rule.

While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.
Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

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Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

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