Let’s (Not) Talk About COVID-19
I’m a little salty. The COVID-19 panic has finally hit my hometown late this week as three confirmed cases popped up in my relatively-large town of 1.5 million. Earlier this week I stopped by the grocery store and it was business as usual. Yesterday my girlfriend gave me a play-by-play of all the people that almost ran her over and sent me pictures of the empty shelves. I’m frustrated because I personally fall into the camp of “the seasonal flu is statistically more dangerous at this point, this is just public panic over nothing.”
Over the past few months, I’ve been publishing a lot of articles on Mastodon about hospital data breaches. It’s a topic I’ve been mulling over, figuring out how to best address the situation. After all, you want to be honest with doctors to get the right treatment but you also don’t want your personal information posted on the dark web simply because you decided to be healthy.
So today I’ve decided to roll a number of topics together to talk about how to handle your privacy in times of a pandemic (or a media panic over nothing). This article is probably going to run a bit longer than my usual post, so bear with me.
How to Handle Hospitals
Even if you’re the type of person to “take an ibuprofen and tough it out,” chances are you will eventually have something serious enough to warrant visiting a hospital, even if just out of caution. So let’s start with how to handle those. Rule number one: don’t lie to your doctor. They became a doctor because they wanted to help people and you’re just wasting their time and risking your own life by lying. Having said that, not all information on a hospital form is mandatory. When they give you the paperwork to fill out, I would ask them what the absolutely essential parts are. I’d also ask if they have a form allowing you to opt out of any data-sharing agreements. They won’t advertise that stuff, but they usually have it. The questions might catch them off guard but ultimately as long as you’re polite and cooperative they don’t really care.
Get a PO Box
I’ve mentioned before some of the benefits of a PO Box. They’re cheap, and they put another layer of protection between your real home address and the public world. And at no additional cost (through USPS, private places may charge) you can sign up to use your PO Box as a street address, which means nobody will even notice that it’s not a real address. This is great for things like hospital forms or employer records as they give those people a legitimate way to get in touch with you without risking your home address showing up in a data breach.
Get a Voice-over-IP (VoIP) Number
This is a thing that deserves its own article and will get one someday. A VoIP number is, in short, a digital phone number that forwards to your real number. Google Voice is a great option if you have an Android phone or budget constraints. I recommend MySudo for iOS. Keep in mind that no VoIP app is perfect for total privacy, but at least it removes your real number from potential data breaches and public records (I’ve got an article in the works about why that matters but for now just trust me that it does, it’s too much to get into in this already crowded article).
Freeze Your Credit
As is usual in times of chaos, scams are on the rise. So make sure to protect yourself and your dependents: freeze your credit and set fraud alerts. Thanks to the Equifax data breach, freezing your credit is now free by federal law in the US, and identity theft of minors is one of the leading cyber crimes. Freezing your credit will ensure that nobody can open an unauthorized account in your name. Even if you don't suspect yourself of being a target or you argue that your credit is too awful to be useful, rest assured that someone will always be able to open a high-interest account for you that a criminal has no intention of every paying off and now the task falls to you to jump through a million legal hoops and prove it wasn’t you. Just avoid it. Set up a credit freeze, and furthermore set up fraud alerts. Lately people have been finding very easy loopholes to unfreeze credit without a PIN – which defeats the whole purpose. A fraud alert is a second layer of protection to help defend against that.
Pay in Cash
This is kind of one of the foundational principles of privacy and data security. While credit cards do come with a lot of convenience and a few legal protections, the transaction information can and often is sold or shared from your bank to various third parties for advertising purposes. Paying with cash removes that tracking trail. I suspect – pardon my tin foil hat – that it’s only a matter of time before your shopping habits are used to determine things like approval and rates for loans, insurance, and other important aspects of daily life.
I was actually planning an entire blog about this. Basically FireChat is an app that creates local networks with wifi and bluetooth cards on phones, bypassing cell towers entirely. The messages are end-to-end encrypted, meaning your message is safe as it hops from phone to phone. This could be a very useful feature in the future if things get worse and we start to see public services get overwhelmed or shut down. It could also be very useful at a theme park or concert once all this blows over, as large gatherings of people tend to overload and slow down the network even if they aren’t actively using their phones. Firechat is not open source, so I don’t recommend using it as a daily communication tool (for a host of other reasons as well). But it could potentially be a good tool to download now and have on standby in case of emergency.
Take Up a Passing Interest in Disaster Prepping and Personal Finance
Admittedly for some of us, this might be too little too late. But honestly, there’s a lot of overlap between the worlds of privacy, personal finance, and disaster prep. For example, disaster prep says “plan for the most likely scenarios first – emergency hospital visits, economic collapse, etc – before you plan for the zombie apocalypse.” Personal finance would agree with that logic 100%. Privacy says “use credit as little as possible because it tracks you,” and personal finance would agree that not relying on credit and staying out of small-time debt is a great idea (disaster prep agrees on that last one, too. If you have no debt, you have one less bill to worry about when the economy tanks). Disaster prep doesn’t mean building a doomsday bunker in the backyard with a thousand guns, it means having an emergency fund and a case of bottled water in the pantry just in case. Again, these are topics that are far too broad to get into in a single blog, and for the most part they are their own separate subjects that warrant pages and pages of discussion. Basically, these aren’t subjects I plan to get into too much ever because they simply fall outside the subject and scope of this site (maybe a few posts here and there in the future on relevant subjects). But they do offer some relevant advice on both the current situation and your privacy in general and I encourage you to look into the subjects.
Okay, allow me to put on my tinfoil hat here, and if this section jumps the conspiracy-theory shark too much for you I completely understand and respect that and I hope you’ll still extract the meaningful advice in the rest of the article: I think we are going to see a suspension of civil liberties as a result of this epidemic. I think for the most part, it’s going to be well meant (and ineffective). However, just like the Patriot Act and the TSA, I think any such suspensions will be here to stay. In 2001, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York and forever changed the course of history in both politics, war, surveillance, culture, and more. Many of our basic freedoms were suspended in the name of “The War on Terror” and to this day – nearly two decades later – we are still fighting to get many of them back. Already we have seen entire cities and regions quarantined, we’ve seen cities ban large gatherings (some as “large” as 500), we’ve seen the government demand more travel data from airlines to track the disease (many Asian countries have already ramped up their surveillance states to successfully combat the outbreak), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see curfews and other such things in the near future. Again, I’m certain that in most cases this is being done with the best intentions. But once Pandora’s Box has been opened, it is so damn hard to shut it again. So as the world scrambles to stop the spread of COVID-19, let’s be sure not to let our fear take us down that road again. Make sure that our civil rights continue to be respected, and make sure they are restored to us as the panic begins to wane. Hold your leaders accountable for that.
Again, I fall into the camp of “I think people are overreacting,” but whether I’m right or wrong we are facing some scary times ahead. Major events are being canceled worldwide, which will lead to economic implications (here in my town we’re already seeing the trickle down). Travel is being restricted, and whole areas are being quarantined. This is going to be a disruption to our daily lives, and it’s important to remember to protect our privacy as well as our health. Please, do visit a hospital if you think you need to. Buy some cold medicine to help with your symptoms. But remember to keep your privacy intact as we all push through this.
A Personal Note from the Author
I mentioned that in my hometown we are already seeing a trickle-down of economic impacts. I live in Austin, TX. We have already canceled the legendary, multi-million-dollar South By Southwest (SXSW), an international week-long music and technology festival that happens every spring in Austin. It’s a huge deal for our economy. This is the first time in over 30 years that’s happened. In response, SXSW had to lay off 1/3 of it’s permanent staff. All of our local major events centers have canceled all their events for the rest of the year, including sports, concerts, expos, and more – we’re talking arenas that seat tens of thousands. We've also canceled tons of other major economically-advantageous events like the Rodeo, just today the city is urging gatherings of more than 250 people to cancel, schools are canceled (or moved online wherever possible), our local racing track – which hosts F-1 and Indy and all other international events – is closed. I've heard the Austin City Limits festival is also cancelled, but that's not until October so I don't know if that's true. We are turning into a ghost town real quick.
My day job is audio/video. I currently work for a small audio/video installer – “less than ten people” small. Yesterday our owner (who is very transparent, which I appreciate) sent out an all-hands email letting us know that times are already getting tough. One of our clients – which was one of these ten-thousand-seat arenas – is having to push back working with us because of funds lost due to cancelled events. Another client that was set to start this month – a college – is also having to push back because of the scramble to move to online classes. Two other clients that were set to start this month – both tech companies – are pushing back because of the disruption of the epidemic. Our owner is doing everything in his power to keep us afloat and not cut any hours, but he is admittedly worried. We were already in a slow season as it is, and now almost all of our upcoming projects (and certainly all of our highest-paying ones) are pushed back indefinitely.
Without going into detail, I assure you that if hours are cut or people are laid off, I will be first on the chopping block. I don’t think it has anything to do with the quality of my work, my work ethic, or me as a person. It’s just a logical choice and one that I wouldn’t blame the owner for making. It’s the same choice I’d make. And I have no doubt that we are not an island – this disruption is happening industry-wide, so despite my impressive resume (I’m serious, I have a fantastic resume) I don’t think I would have an easy time hopping to another job simply because I suspect nobody is hiring right now.
I say all that to say this: I realize times are about to be tough for everyone if they’re not already right now, but I’m facing a pretty scary time ahead as my industry is not essential and neither is my position with my day job. As such, I will be leaning very heavily on side projects like this one and the generosity of its supporters. So, if you are in a position to give anything to help support this project and myself during these times of uncertainty, it would be extremely appreciated. And if you are not in such a position, I get it. Just try to stay healthy and weather through it. Thank you for reading.