Privacy Matters : March 17th 2021

Back after a year. What a year!

Privacy Matters : March 17th 2021

It’s been a heady few quarters to say the least, and Orchid’s growth -- as well as that of the crypto space generally -- has kept my focus in other areas. But I’ve been monitoring developments around privacy all this time, and now seems like an opportune moment to revisit some of the thoughts I shared last year and check in on how they’ve developed.

When I last wrote in April, we were in the early throes of the pandemic. Much of the world was under lockdown amid tremendous uncertainty about the nature of the virus itself, let alone any path out of the emergency. Almost a year on, the macro picture is still dominated by the covid-19 pandemic, with the crisis dragging on longer than most of expected (or perhaps more accurately, hoped). 

But much about it has shifted: we now have multiple effective vaccines, and wealthy countries are inoculating their populations with increasing speed. Whereas last April, most of the rich world was locked down, the situation on the ground is now a hodgepodge, with some jurisdictions like Italy still in lockdown while certain U.S. states have lifted all restrictions

Pandemic privacy, 11 months on

Already in those early months, it was clear that policies designed to address the covid crisis would have serious implications for privacy. Widespread contact tracing was seen as an inevitable and essential tool for controlling outbreaks as they arose, and there was speculation about “immunity passports” that could allow those who had recovered from Covid to travel more freely.

In hindsight it’s clear that contact tracing has been a failure, for a number of reasons. The first is logistical: it turned out simply to be too hard to consistently keep tabs on hundreds of millions of people’s daily interactions. The concept has also faced headwinds from the courts -- as in Israel, where the Supreme Court recently banned unlimited contact tracing via mobile phones. 

Conversely, with rapid vaccinations, immunity passports seem to have legs again -- including in Israel, where “green passports” grant those who have been inoculated access to gyms, bars, and more. Time will tell whether this time, they end up becoming a feature of a reviving global travel sector. But it’s a possibility: theIATA is currently working at “full capacity” to roll out its Travel Pass and talking to “30 to 40” other airlines about adopting its “digital platform for passengers.”

Beyond the pandemic, the world keeps turning, with new implications for privacy. During the year we’ve all spent cocooned in physical distance from one another, exciting new technical concepts have exploded in popularity. I’m thinking in particular about decentralized finance, or DeFi, which has surged into the public consciousness with new, blockchain-based ways to lend, borrow, and earn financial rewards. Elsewhere in tech we’ve seen social media -- one of the drivers of privacy concerns -- move in new directions, with the rise of Clubhouse and the continued popularity of TikTok

Meanwhile, state challenges to individual privacy continue to mount. Just this week, China banned Signal, which had been the last encrypted messaging app left standing in the country. People will now need to use a VPN to access the service.

All of these developments push the conversation around privacy in new directions, which I’ll be exploring over here over the coming months.

A historical pivot point, and the road ahead

It is obvious that Covid has been a generational global crisis and its ramifications will be felt profoundly for decades, particularly around privacy. To gain insight into the way old paradigms have shifted and understand our possible paths forward, the team at Orchid is excited to be hosting the first-ever Priv8 Virtual Privacy Summit next week from March 23-25. The event will feature speakers including Edward Snowden, Kara Swisher, and a host of other experts and advocates. I’ll be speaking as well. 

It’s free to register, so if you’re interested in learning about where privacy stands in 2021 from some of the world’s experts, sign up here.