Innovations in technology continue to offer hope in the fight against the spread of coronavirus. From thermal sensors which detect symptoms to track and trace apps, it seems inevitable, says Alicia Asin, co-founder and CEO of Libelium, that new technology holds at least part of the key to enabling us to return to some sense of normality.
However, with these innovations comes a new chapter in an age-old debate around the integration of technology into our society: How much privacy are we willing to surrender in order for technology to help us feel safer?
You will have seen on the news the huge scale of innovation taking place to combat the coronavirus: Applications for tracking contacts, geolocating infected people, temperature measuring equipment for public buildings and hospitals, the list goes on and on. Technology is opening up the possibility of a safe return to a cautious normality post-lockdown, but in doing so many have become concerned about the extent to which it could compromise our personal privacy.
For me, there is more than a hint of irony in this position. When half of the world was locked down and global healthcare systems were on the brink of disaster, no measure which protected human life was considered out of bounds. Preventing us from leaving our homes, keeping families apart, closing borders; Any measure necessary was acceptable in the protection of those most vulnerable to the disease.
Privacy vs. healthcare
However, now that our doors have reopened and we begin to emerge into our workplaces, some seem to have forgotten those pledges from a few weeks back. As if the past two months simply hadn’t happened, we are once again back to square one. For many sceptical voices, protecting our vulnerable from the virus should not take precedence over total data privacy.
These “privacy purists” believe that a barrier approach will be sufficient to protect the population from this dangerous virus as we leave lockdown. Workplaces that are beginning to reopen should, in their minds, erect screens, enforce mass mask wearing and ensure socially distanced desks.
However, these prevention methods will not be enough to contain a virus with such a high rate of infection. In the absence of a failsafe method of infection detection systems inside every workplace, barrier methods and social distancing alone are doomed to fail. Only in combination with trace and track technology and dynamic temperature monitoring systems can we ever hope to ensure even partial safety for the public post-lockdown.
Should privacy trump safety?
We are moving into the next phase of our battle with coronavirus. Lockdown has brought us valuable time to develop our healthcare capacity, focus on the foundations of a vaccine and develop systems capable of protecting us from the virus outside our homes. Unfortunately, there will always be those who, in the name of privacy concerns, wish to limit the effectiveness of those systems. Of course, they have a right to believe that their privacy should trump our safety. However, they should not be allowed to block those of us who wish to utilise new technology and step out of lockdown into the new normal.
The author is Alicia Asin, co-founder and CEO of Libelium.
About the author
The author is Alicia Asin, the CEO and co-founder of Libelium. She received the European Women Innovator Award in 2019, and is on the Jury for the Princess of Asturias Innovation Awards.