May 22, 2020

When this is behind us, how will we think about privacy?

Kevin McDermott
Principal

two women facing security camera above mounted on structure

Photo courtesy: Matthew Henry

Among the fascinations of building the worlds used in scenario-planning consulting work are the number of times we’ve imagined a world with some far-out wrinkle that seems unlikely to come true for years if ever.  And then weeks later it comes to pass.

One of my colleagues, for instance, recalls an FSG project for a tech giant 20 years ago in which a characteristic of a particular world was surveillance cameras everywhere—even in private homes!  Some client-team members balked.  No one, they argued, would ever accept such a pervasive invasion of privacy.  Now we barely give it a thought.

After 9/11 we got used to the idea of some stranger in the lobby of an office building taking our photograph and making a copy of our driver’s license as a condition of going upstairs.  Once the mood of crisis associated with COVID-19 passes will we similarly get used to simply giving away information about the state of our health?

Full disclosure: I do not know.

These days I think a lot about a workgroup I led for a health-care client two years ago in which we imagined a world where we’d all be glad to have a chip embedded under our wrists, a chip that would continually transmit information about our body to… well, someone.  Our doctor?  The local hospital?  Plausible, we thought, but not for a couple of decades.  Too much else would have to change.  Now I’m not sure.

Already most people are accommodating themselves to the concept of giving a stranger in an office lobby not just their photo and driver’s license but their body temperature in the bargain.  In an atmosphere of emergency we’re more likely to surrender privacy than to guard it.

Where I live in New York City, for instance, an office building in Rockefeller Center is installing thermal cameras to measure the temperatures of people entering its lobby.  According to The Wall Street Journal, the same building manager is also developing a mobile app to “score” tenants for their observance of social-distancing rules.  No uproar has ensued.  So far.

Most of us treat privacy as a continuum issue, not a binary one.  Contextual, in other words, not all or nothing.  We give the person in the lobby our driver’s license because it’s not much of an inconvenience in exchange for going where we need to go.  Thermal imaging might feel only marginally more intrusive.  We might—probably—balk at a blood test.

Generational split?

Maybe our feelings about privacy will be, at least to a degree, generational.  I recall some months ago, for instance, crowing to my 17-year-old son that I’d figured out a way to keep Google from preserving data about my travels when I used Google Maps.

“Why do you care?” he asked me.  It took me a while to explain.

Those of us accustomed to the time before Coronavirus may always place a higher premium on privacy.  Those whose early lives are being scalded by the crisis may care not less but differently.  The cross impacts of phenomena arising out of social and economic stress are seldom what we predict they’ll be while we’re still anchored in the present.

Only two years ago, remember, we were all indignant at what felt like a sudden recognition of how much data about ourselves was collected without our permission.  FacebookGoogleAmazon and others seemed taken by surprise by how much the issue abruptly mattered.

What about that has changed?

After our current crisis is behind us, will that indignation resurface once we find out that, say, a digital contact-tracing app created to make life safer has a side hustle of aggregating our data and selling it?  Will “immunity badges”create a caste system with the immune at the top and the non-immune literally shut out?  Will employers use that information in hiring and firing decisions?  And will employees push back against all this tracking of their personal health?  How do we even frame the questions surrounding liability?

I would bet money on only two things.  One, the speed with which health-care applications are being developed and deployed almost guarantees that in the beginning data-privacy will be full of holes.  Two, the nature and direction of the pushback will not be what we’re thinking about when all anyone wants is to get back to work.

Comments  | 

Patrick Marren
The effect of "immunity badges" on the upcoming election, and on other things, will be interesting to watch.
Robert Cummings
I have 5 different health portals yet I repeat the same prescription data to the nurse every visit and in an emergency room the doctors in the ER knew nothing zero about me. How is that for useful accessible data collection ? The diabetes supply people seem to know me though. Collecting data is easy, controlling it and giving personal permission seems to be the hang-up.
pkennedy
Thanks, Bob. What you describe is an "epic" (pun intended) challenge. I wonder how much is risk management -- i.e., health care providers not really trusting that the information on hand is current and reliable, and not wanting bad things to occur (including lawsuits) as a result.
Kevin McDermott
I’ve been curious about this myself, Pat. It may be that, at least in the United States, the virus will accelerate vote-by-mail or even online voting--something the country has been arguing about for years. It's a good example of the surprising cross impacts of a big event. Six months ago who was thinking about how a pandemic might change the mechanics of voting? If that happens, if we start trying out new ways of running elections, what’s the equivalent of going behind a curtain in a voting booth?

Thoughts?