Would You Trade Your Privacy to Help End the Pandemic?

A conversation with Alex Winter on privacy, surveillance, and COVID-19

I miss normal and wonder if and when we’ll ever see it again. The ruinous path of the COVID-19 pandemic follows its own tragic narrative and we, as puny humans, are doing, I think, exactly what we’re supposed to do to combat its spread.

Thoughts, though, turn inevitably to post-COVID-19, especially how quickly we can get to that place.

COVID Surveillance
Lifewire / Hilary Allison

Experts tell us that, in addition to staying at home and staying apart, mass testing is one clear way to win this war with an invisible enemy. Some also believe that digital surveillance, which has been used to varying degrees in South Korea, Israel, Germany, and China, is another crucial puzzle piece. It’s also the one that could stick with us long after the pandemic is over.

My gut reaction to the idea of mass digital surveillance would be repulsion, but these are not normal times. When I wrote a brief news report on Google’s COVID-19 Mobility Reports, I was more impressed than panicked about what our loose grip on location data means for privacy.

Some mass surveillance does look like this. Enemy of the State / Touchstone Pictures

Ed Knows

While Google used its anonymized location data to compare reduction in human traffic to parks and stores with COVID-19 outbreaks, countries like Israel have looked at tracking people who are infected to, I guess, ensure they do not infect others.

Former NSA employee and whistleblower Ed Snowden told a Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival audience last month that government access to this data now could become permanent, "Five years later the coronavirus is gone, this data's still available to them — they start looking for new things."


On the other hand, I’m desperate for normalcy. To help sort through my conflicting feelings, I spoke to an old friend, documentary filmmaker and actor Alex Winter.

I met Winter almost a decade ago when he was promoting his first Documentary, Downloaded, which looked at the rise and fall of the Napster music-sharing revolution. He followed that up with Deep Web, which chronicled the rise of a new decentralized and encrypted internet and traced the rise of the Dark Web and fall of the Silk Road online marketplace.

Winter’s documentary work is often at the intersection of digital life, privacy, and all the ways people try to have both. In a 2015 TED talk, Winter talked about the allure of early online forums and IRC (long before massive centralized networks like Facebook and Twitter) where people “came for privacy, stayed for anonymity.” He also said, “Privacy is not a privilege and not something to be willingly and casually sacrificed.”

I assumed, correctly, Winter could offer some perspective on the new privacy trade-offs we could be making in the near future.

Alex Winter
Actor and documentary filmmaker Alex Winter has been exploring the relationship between the Internet and our rights, security, and our privacy for years. Stefan Radtke

Winter at Home

Like the rest of us, Alex Winter was stuck at home, but he also seemed better prepared for a new working from home reality.

“Those of us that have been in this space for a long time, it’s been an easier transition,” said Winter “[We] powered the production office down at the beginning of March and we’ve been getting an enormous amount of work done.”

For Winter, the work includes the global roll-out of his five-years-in-the-making Frank Zappa documentary (it was supposed to premiere at SXSW), an HBO documentary about children in showbiz, and a certain mainstream movie.

For those of you who think Winter looks a little familiar, that’s because he’s one half of the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure film series (he plays Bill). The third film is in post-production. “Our roll-out was about to hit this week,” said Winter. If any of us were still going to movie theaters, it’s possible we would’ve seen a trailer for Bill & Ted Face the Music.

It’s unclear when that will get back on track. “We don’t know what kind of world we’re coming out of when this starts to dissipate,” said Winter, adding, “but for the dissipation to happen, we need mass surveillance, medicine and testing.”

A Different Perspective

Wait a minute. Winters, who has been a digital citizen for longer than there’s been a public internet, uses a VPN, always turns off location tracking, and never uses the cloud is calling for mass surveillance?

“What we see now, for people who are saying the sky is falling, the sky fell already; we haven’t had privacy for a long time,” said Winter.

He’s right, there’s the illusion of privacy and then there’s our reality. “Mass surveillance is just a great big hand that sweeps up everything,” Winter told me.

Information is constantly being mined, collated, and used, sometimes with our tacit agreement (when you opt-in), other times less so through anonymized data collection—similar to what Google did for its Mobility Maps.

We now find ourselves in a legitimate health and civil liberties crisis and the black and white approach some take to technology—it’s all good or all bad—isn’t going to work. Winter told me, “It’s easier to be evangelical about tech or extremely anti-technology,” he said, but that’s not helpful. “It’s not just, ‘Google bad’ or ‘Google good,’ it’s 'Google nuanced.’”

'The sky fell already; we haven’t had privacy for a long time.'

A Wake-Up Call

This unique COVID-19 Pandemic moment could be a bucket of ice-cold water that wakes us up. “We don’t have the luxury for people to remain so willfully ignorant or antagonist about technology.” Instead, Winter recommends that we take control and “exert our power as citizens.”

For Winter, the key is engagement with the solution and its implementation. “It’s incumbent on people to take part in the new epoch. Whether they like it or not, they have a part to play in figuring out the ways in which it is realized. They’ll help shape it and help pull back on certain areas of surveillance before COVID-19,” said Winter.

Privacy in the age of COVID-19 will inevitably change but, Winter told me, “mass surveillance is absolutely imperative in order for this country to avoid a full-blown depression.” It’s a notion that goes to the heart of the tension between our desire to get back to life as normal and the near-term and long-term trade-offs we’re willing to make.

Winter sees this challenging moment as, “a wake-up call for people in terms of how much you’re surveilled on a daily basis.”

Alex Winter at work
Winter shooting a documentary. Christian Freeman / Trouper Productions

Still a Patriot

Which brings us back to Snowden, who worries that the mass surveillance genie will never return to the bottle. And his concerns are well-founded.

After 9/11, the U.S. Congress and White House speedily drafted and passed sweeping changes to surveillance and civil liberties laws. The Patriot Act remains in effect to this day.

Winter calls Snowden “a fighter” and said that vigilance is imperative.
“Of course, Snowden is right. People who say they’re not surveilling you for nefarious reasons are absolutely lying to you.”

That vigilance is in our hands.

Winter, me, and virtually everyone we know dream of a day when life is as it was. I don’t know if that’s even possible, but Winter makes a compelling case for using whatever technological tools we have to gather the information that can help stop the spread and more quickly and effectively test and treat people.

'We need mass surveillance, medicine and testing.'

We have a role to play but, Winter warns, that might not happen if we cross our arms, close our eyes and say, “all is bad, and throw rocks at it.” “The world is changing, and our ideas of privacy are going to have to change.”

Political scientist and author of LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media Peter W. Singer agreed with this assessment when I asked him over Twitter direct message.

“We were already headed towards a world of mass surveillance…the pandemic has accelerated all this, mostly for good reason. We've seen it deployed to help track outbreaks and deliver aid to enforce good behavior,” said Singer, adding that typical privacy concerns have been set aside.

“It’s unlikely that we'll go back 100% to the way we were before all this," said Singer, "so, the next years will be shaped very much by that rapid deployment, and then trying to sift through what it all means.”

So What

The question remains, can we give up some personal privacy but do so in a fully-engaged way, one which ensures that whatever privacy protections we cede in the short term to end the COVID-19 pandemic are not baked into another Patriot Act-style law that could take decades to unwind? I believe we’re about to answer that question, one way or another.

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