March 26, 2020 | Jim Killock

Open tech, privacy and Covid-19

From enabling strategies to curb the virus to empowering individuals to connect and work from home, digital technology is playing a vital role in the COVID-19 epidemic.

As the government adopts emergency powers, Open Rights Group (ORG) is on high alert to ensure our digital liberties emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.

Technology and digital rights are critical in the fight against COVID-19

Though some efforts have arguably overreached, the use of personal data has been an indispensable tool in successful measures against COVID-19. The government has the moral duty but also the legal right under data protection law to use personal information to defeat a public health emergency. Importantly, data protection principles such as transparency and lawfulness still apply and the public must be informed about any changes taking place.

We are worried that the government is not being clear about how it wants to use personal data, as we explained last week on Sky News. Transparency will only help the government by heading off conspiracy theories and building the public trust needed to successfully manage a crisis. Our allies at Privacy International are building a public resource to track the global technology response — notably, efforts from the UK are absent.

There are big questions about how the UK government intends to use technology for tracking infection or locating individuals. The focus elsewhere around the world has been on the use of location data from mobile phones. For instance, how will the government work with private companies; will it compel data to be handed from mobile companies? Will it impose new duties on private actors? Is it intending to use existing national security powers and the bulk communications data already in the hands of the intelligence agencies?

Find out more by listening to our live COVID-19 discussion on Friday at 4:30pm.

Working in the open

With collaboration, sharing and freedom of information proving central to stopping COVID-19, the world is learning the importance of open technology like never before. Grassroots efforts like the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies Facebook group and Newspeak House's Coronavirus Tech Handbook are turning to Creative Commons open licensing to remove barriers to access and sharing. The rapid development of a free design for a cheap ventilator by an ad-hoc group of British scientists shows that strong intellectual property restrictions are not always necessary to stimulate innovation.

The European Commission's decision to allow free access to copyright protected European medical standards to accelerate the production of masks and other medical equipment illustrates why tools saddled with excessive licensing requirements that prevent innovation or sharing are being left behind.

How you can help

Internet access is now critical to people who are at home, potentially isolated or needing to look after others. We all can take simple steps, such as limiting our use of bandwidth. Even with a high penetration rate in the United Kingdom, 7% of households do not have internet access. You could consider setting up a shared and secure Internet access point for your neighbours.

OpenWireless.org has a guide to setting up a secure open channel to safely share your bandwidth with those in need. Your router should have an easy way to set up a separate, password-free “guest network”: we recommend calling it “openwireless.org” so people know how to find out more about why you’ve provided an open access point.

How ORG is changing

We'll be hosting all our upcoming events online, including a special discussion about the privacy implications within the emerging Coronavirus response this Friday at 4:30pm.

Our staff are of course working at home and trying to stay safe – as we hope you are too.

Don’t forget to join our COVID-19 discussion on Friday at 4:30pm. 
 
Thank you for protecting UK digital rights.
Jim