Tech’s long COVID-19: What privacy battles will define 2021?

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From mass surveillance to privacy legislation, digital rights experts from around the world discuss what will be high on the agenda in 2021

By Umberto Bacchi

The coronavirus pandemic added a new layer to the ever-developing debate around privacy and technology in 2020, as governments and companies turned to tools like contract tracing apps and employee monitoring software.

As the year comes to an end, the Thomson Reuters Foundation asked privacy experts around the world what issues will shape the conversation in 2021:

  1. MASS SURVEILLANCE – Ella Jakubowska, policy officer, European Digital Rights, Brussels

“In 2021, one big challenge for civil society will be protecting fundamental rights in Europe from the threat of mass surveillance.

On the one hand, the European Commission is poised to propose new legislation to ensure that artificial intelligence can only be used in trustworthy ways.

On the other, in late 2020, plans for a sorely needed ePrivacy Regulation were abandoned, lawmakers and celebrities alike made misguided attacks on encryption, and an expansion of biometric mass surveillance infrastructure was proposed.

These trends suggest there is a lot of work to be done in 2021 to protect Europe from transforming into a union of undemocratic police states.”

  1. DATA PROTECTION – Sutawan Chanprasert, founder, DigitalReach, Bangkok

“In Southeast Asia, various digital contact tracing systems were introduced, and governments had the right to hold on to the data for as long as they wished.

We do not know if these systems will be dismantled or if they will continue in some form, and there is no guarantee that they won’t be used for surveillance. This trend of collecting and keeping personal data will likely continue.

While Thailand and Indonesia are looking to introduce personal data protection laws, we do not see privacy or data protection being priorities across the Southeast Asia region, with governments taking greater control of the digital space and using data to silence critics.”

  1. PRIVACY LEGISLATION – Jennifer Brody, advocacy manager, Access Now, Washington D.C.

“In 2021, lawmakers around the globe must make a concerted effort to better address the uncharted impact of Brexit, the end of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, and Big Tech as gatekeepers, for a data economy that should put people’s rights at the forefront.

We are witnessing a lack of enforcement of strong data protection laws, an increase of prying government surveillance, and tech giants doubling down on data harvesting practices.

This is eroding our privacy rights globally and hurting the digital economy. The need to reform surveillance laws in the United States and in Europe, and to adopt privacy legislation in India and in the U.S., has never been more urgent.

  1. DIGITAL ID – Alice Munyua, director, Africa innovation strategy, Mozilla, San Francisco

“The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 is often conflated with and used to justify high-tech ID projects.

Frequently funded through development aid, these digital ID schemes risk abusing privacy and amplifying patterns of discrimination and exclusion.

Digital ID projects are being implemented throughout the African continent in countries which lack privacy and data protection laws or robust connectivity infrastructure.

Supported by international donors like the World Bank, the European Union and others, they are often costly, invasive and not necessarily secure.”

  1. CONTACT TRACING – Maksym Dvorovyi, lawyer, Digital Security Lab, Kyiv

“During the pandemic, contact tracing became one of the tools necessary for the prevention of the spread of the disease.

At the same time, through such applications, large amounts of sensitive data about persons were and are being collected by (various) states.

While some states have proper personal data protection laws, others don’t – and the problem of proper retention of the collected data may arise.

In 2021, we may expect to find data collected through the apps in unexpected places and its use for unexpected purposes, especially in regions with weak data protection laws.”

  1. WORKPLACE SNOOPING – Edin Omanovic, advocacy director, Privacy International, London

“From wide-scale snooping on workplaces to the imposition of tracking bracelets, the coronavirus has changed society’s fundamental relationship with technology and likely in ways we’re not even close to understanding.

2021 will be the year that these changes are formalised. Large multinational institutions and democratic governments are already investing in things like increased travel surveillance and digital ID systems as “solutions” to COVID-19 and virus 2.0.

Key battlefronts will be fights over competition law, investments in health and travel surveillance systems, decisions over the use of surveillance powers in public spaces and workplaces, and the appropriate role for for-profit surveillance companies.”

  1. FACIAL RECOGNITION – Artem Kozlyuk, head, RosKomSvoboda, Moscow

“In Russia, primarily in Moscow, the active deployment of facial recognition systems continues. These technical means and the accumulated sensitive data, including biometric data, are outside public control.

At the same time, leaks and unauthorised access to surveillance by third parties regularly occur, which, along with recognition errors, causes great concern.

The state obliged manufacturers of electronic devices like smartphones and computers to preinstall domestic software from a special list before sales in Russia. This raises many questions and concerns among specialists and human rights defenders.”

  1. DATA BREACHES – Murray Hunter, anti-surveillance author, Cape Town

“South Africans will have to raise the political costs for data breaches.

In July 2021, South Africa’s data protection law will finally come into full legal force, after years of delays.

South Africa is a country with huge inequality, where banks, insurers, political parties, cyber criminals and many more have made great profit from the buying and selling of people’s personal data – and mass data breaches have become all too common.

In 2021, we’re finally going to see what it takes to actually enforce data protection – can a rickety government watchdog hope to put a stop to this? Or, will lobbyists and lawyers end up ghostwriting the kind of oversight and regulation their clients want to see?

That said, I’m also hopeful that 2021 will see a growing demand for better data protection from ordinary South Africans – adding new political and financial costs to those in government and the private sector who just haven’t taken this issue seriously.”


(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Additional reporting Rina Chandran, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. The Thomson Reuters Foundation)