EFF Protecting Security and Civil Liberties During the COVID-19 Crisis

Cindy Cohn Electronic Frontier Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic has now altered our timeline.

It has made obvious how important the Internet and digital tools are to our lives and how vital it is that we maintain an open and secure approach to them. But we must be as vigilant as we are thoughtful in our response. From long experience, we know that times of crisis have often led politicians to embrace unnecessary and discriminatory measures that increase surveillance and threaten privacy.

EFF and its members work to ensure that technology supports freedom, justice, and innovation for all the people of the world. Our shared mission—both embracing the positives that emerge during this time and heading off the inevitable negatives—is more important than ever.

*Online Creativity Is A Bright Spot In The Darkness*

For those of us living under quarantine, shelter in place orders, or just staying home to voluntarily help protect our communities, we now rely on the Internet and digital tools more than ever to share information and advice, create art and memes, listen to our favorite musicians perform “live,” or just to feel less alone. We see how technology is helping us cope, hopefully temporarily, with the loss of in-person contact. Many others are using digital tools and services to organize mutual aid for their neighborhoods and communities in this time of crisis.

Thanks to open access science, scientific and medical teams are able to instantly share their work and build on efforts to track the virus, study its effect on people, and develop vaccines. Others are developing ways to create and repair vital medical equipment using open tools, including reportedly 3D printing. We are coming together online and offline in new and creative ways, and ensuring that security, privacy, and openness are baked into the tools and services we use will only support our efforts.

In some ways, the explosion of open creativity online to keep us connected and sane during these scary times is one of the bright spots in the darkness. But in the United States, it also shows how this crisis disproportionately impacts those of us who are marginalized in our society already—the unsheltered, those who cannot afford or access reliable broadband service to continue school or work, the consultants and retail workers who have little reserves, and all of those falling through our frayed social safety net. Innovation is needed here too—like ensuring that robust broadband access works for everyone, not just the wealthy, and is not dependent on temporary largess of some giant providers.

*We Must Be Extra Vigilant In Defending Our Rights In This Moment*

We also know that times of great public fear come with great risk. Public fear has driven some of the worst human rights atrocities, and given opportunities for those who would seize power from us and reduce or even erase our hard-won human rights and civil liberties. Already we see efforts to use this public health crisis as an excuse to place irrational blame on our Asian communities and direct even more pressure and discrimination against refugees and immigrants. We already see calls from companies seeking to cash in on this crisis for unchecked face surveillance, social media monitoring, and other efforts far beyond what medicine or epidemiology require.

When fear threatens to undermine our rights and pervert justice, that’s where EFF—and you—come in.

We know that this virus requires us to take steps that would be unthinkable in normal times. Staying inside, limiting public gatherings, and cooperating with medically needed attempts to track the virus are, when approached properly, reasonable and responsible things to do. But we must be sure that measures taken in the name of responding to COVID-19 are, in the language of international human rights law, “necessary and proportionate” to the needs of society in fighting the virus. Above all, we must make sure that these measures end and that the data collected for these purposes is not re-purposed for either governmental or commercial ends.

*We Can Take Advantage Of Technology, and Emerge Stronger*

As we head further into these difficult times, EFF is standing strong to make sure that we both take advantage of how technology can help us now and, equally importantly, that we emerge from this time with our freedom and democracy as strong, if not stronger, than when we went in. Because we at EFF have a committed membership as our primary support—over half of our annual budget comes from individuals—we can pivot our attention to these issues even as we continue our ongoing fights.

EFF’s lawyers are scrutinizing the proposed laws and regulations and corporate privacy moves, especially the growing and concerning raft of corporate/government surveillance efforts. Our technologists are digging into the digital tools we all rely on during this crisis to make sure that your privacy is protected. We’re pushing to lower artificial barriers to information sharing, and working to make sure that access to knowledge is one of the things we keep as we emerge from these times. And more.

We have created an issue page dedicated to our COVID-19 focused work and will continue to highlight our efforts there, as well as publish needed practical information about how to fight COVID-19 phishing attempts and how to show your EFF support as we head into our 30th year of standing strong for your rights.

Right now, when real science is so often under attack, those of us who care about truth, health, and each other need to take seriously the things that science and medicine are telling us about how to keep this virus from spreading. And we also need to be vigilant so that we come out the other side of this crisis with a society we want to live in and hand down to our kids. We can—and must—do both.

EFF is proven, ready, and strong. With the support of our members, new and old, we’ll be there with you every step of the way.

Yours in Online Rights,

Cindy Cohn
EFF Executive Director

Activism | Impact Litigation | Technology
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