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The Privacy Advisor | Will contact tracing and vaccine passports be storytelling launchpads? Time will tell Related reading: DNA is no longer just for 'Law and Order' reruns anymore




I recently received my second COVID-19 vaccination in an abandoned Sears building attached to a local mall. After the jab, I sat in a chair for the allotted 15 minutes they want you to in case the 5G signals aren't kicking in. To pass the time, I listened to the second half of David Bowie's "Low," which has some of my all-time favorite instrumental tracks. When I left, a wave of different feelings gradually hit me over the next couple of days.

First came the feeling of relief. The whole process took less than half an hour, and I was overjoyed to be in and out so quickly. Then came the surge of optimism. It was the first time in a long time that I actually looked forward to the months ahead. 

There was also the sore arm, the general feeling of malaise and a stomach that seemed to be on the verge of a total revolt, but alas, that's the cost of doing business.

I am looking forward to the day when the pandemic is not tattooed to the forefront of my consciousness, and I imagine the sentiment is shared by just about everyone else in the world. No one wants to experience another second of this hellish experience.

But at some point in the future, we will eventually cycle back to this era via the art we consume.

Stories will be told about this monumental occasion in history once we have time to fully process the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic. When those tales are told, it will be fascinating to see how the elements of the pandemic that are tied to privacy will be portrayed.

Contact tracing was a hot topic almost immediately after the pandemic starting raging last spring. Governments and technology companies were looking to develop mobile applications to track the spread of COVID-19 in local communities. As those apps were in the process of developments, concerns were raised about location data and whether the information will be used for purposes outside of contact tracing. These aren't issues that won't go away as vaccines go into more arms. U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham recently said during an IAPP Global Privacy Summit Online 2021 discussion that one of the biggest issues the public will want answers for is whether all the information collected during this past year will be decommissioned once the pandemic eventually subsides.

As I've written in this space before, surveillance stories have been a pop culture staple for decades now. It's not a stretch of the imagination to see future stories in which these contact-tracing concerns are handled allegorically, and we see an alternate reality in which the COVID-19 pandemic is given a treatment a la "Nineteen Eighty-Four."

It might be better to take an allegorical route rather than explicitly tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. A movie already tried that last year and was met with as much enthusiasm as one might expect when trying to capitalize on a global disaster while it's still very much in progress.

"Songbird" is a movie in which the COVID-19 pandemic continues for years and sick patients are tracked, abducted and sent to die in sequestered camps. It's an odious project filmed during the pandemic and seems to take a very alarmist tone in terms of handling surveillance. It's not as though it's wrong to craft a tale in which contact tracing is used for nefarious purposes, but to present this story in 2020 is disgraceful at best, and the whole project seems as subtle as taking a brick to the face while simultaneously getting kicked in the nether region as you are being screamed at by Michael Bay with a megaphone.

It's clearly a case of "too soon," and anyone with common sense would know that. Truthfully, we need to distance ourselves from this whole affair before we know how to properly, and tastefully, portray the events of the past year-plus. There's also another privacy-related item that still requires a lot of consideration: vaccine passports. The debate around vaccine passports is in full swing right now, and it's anyone's guess whether they will be embraced or rejected. It may ultimately differ between countries, states and private businesses. The concept of a vaccine passport ruffles a lot of feathers. I can certainly see stories of vaccine passport stand-ins operating as the centerpiece for stories of government control.

Ultimately, how contact tracing and vaccine passports will factor into the art we consume will depend on how all this information is handled in the months and years ahead. If the location data is decommissioned at the end of the pandemic and a suitable arrangement is met with vaccine passports, then maybe these are all just historical footnotes. But if a major scandal were to be uncovered around either of these items, then you can bet its influence will be widespread. In fact, we've already seen stories of secondary data use come to light. Singapore passed legislation to govern law enforcement's access to contact-tracing data after its government determined police could access data obtained from the country’s TraceTogether contact-tracing app for criminal investigations. This could just be a one-off example, but it also may be a harbinger of a trend that will make a lot of people rather unhappy.

Now you might think the COVID-19 pandemic might be off-limits due to the amount of death and carnage it has produced. My sweet summer flower, you are gravely mistaken. Stories of war have been produced for centuries. The Sept. 11 attacks have been the subject of several movies, both as historical documents and shamefully explorative narrative device. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor, and there have been two movies based on the Boston Marathon bombing, and it hasn't even been ten years since it took place.

An allegorical approach to the pandemic might be my preference for tackling the events we are currently living through, but COVID-19 is likely going to be presented by name in the stories that will soon be told. What shape those tales take will depend on the actions and decisions that are quickly approaching on the horizon.

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

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