Coronavirus

2 Decades of Dubious Surveillance Will Make It Much Harder To Track COVID-19 Now

Government officials have only themselves to blame if citizens decline to share their information.

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Would you tell an app on your phone if you tested positive for COVID-19 so that people who had been in close contact with you could be informed?

For many Americans, the answer would be yes, many emphatically so. But deep suspicion about who might see that information and how that information might be used to suppress civil liberties will push thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, of Americans to refuse.

Their refusal to participate might make it much harder to track the spread of the coronavirus and protect people from exposure. That's unfortunate, but that deep suspicion of how the government uses our private data from our phones and computers is justified by an entire post-9/11 regime of domestic surveillance that far too many government officials continue to defend.

Andrea O'Sullivan explained here at Reason how location technology on our phones could be used to help trace COVID-19 infections and how apps are playing an important role at stopping the spread in South Korea and China. Apple and Google are partnering up to host apps that will allow individuals around the world to participate. People who discover they've been infected with the coronavirus can inform the app, and the app will inform others who have come into close contact with them recently, letting them know they may have been exposed so that they can take proper precautions and self-isolate.

The way Apple and Google are approaching these tools is admirable, at least on paper. Participation will be voluntary. The tools won't actually collect identifiable information on location data. People who test positive will not be identified to Google or Apple or transmitted to health authorities. (Google explains how the location tracing will work here.)

But there's a lot of mistrust—and I don't just mean mistrust of Google and Apple. There's mistrust of governments, both authoritarian and democratic, who might be able to track citizens and collect data via phones. China is already doing this with its citizens. Let's not pretend that this is simply a tool of authoritarian regimes. After the passage of the PATRIOT Act, the National Security Agency (NSA) secretly implemented the collection and storage of mass amounts of Americans' phone and internet metadata, without a warrant or any real justification other than to search through it for potential terrorist plotting.

Edward Snowden revealed the extent of this surveillance to Americans almost seven years ago, and at the time, a significant number of bipartisan political leaders insisted that this surveillance, despite violating the Fourth Amendment rights of all Americans, was needed to protect us from violent terrorism. It was not. As the years went by, it became clear that this mass surveillance was not making us safer, nor was it an effective tool for fighting terrorism. The USA Freedom Act reformed the system to restrict how the data could be collected and accessed but also brought it out from the shadows and made it official policy. (The USA Freedom Act expired in March since Congress did not reach a compromise over renewing it as attention turned to the pandemic, a mostly unnoticed casualty of COVID-19.)

Now, Snowden warns that the same governments that used the fear of terrorism to justify massive domestic surveillance may do the same for the coronavirus. People may recall that Snowden was initially dismissed as a crank by a lot of people until the government was forced to acknowledge that much of what he'd revealed was actually true.

We already see examples of law enforcement agencies at home and abroad abusing their surveillance tools to try to exert authority over citizens instead of helping them. Drones can be a boon to police when searching for lost people or scoping out dangerous situations. But in England, one police department used them to snoop on and attempt to shame citizens who had gone to a park to exercise and be outdoors (none of these citizens appeared to be violating social distancing rules). In Kentucky, police are using license plate readers to force compliance with self-quarantine orders. This surveillance is not being used to collect information to track the coronavirus. It's being used to control people.

And so, if thousands of Americans (or Brits) refuse to assist public health agencies by opting into these apps, don't blame them. Blame the government officials who have reliably used every single crisis for the past two decades to insist they need to have access to more and more information about our private lives. Will Apple and Google even be able to keep their promises that the government can't access this private data, given that both politicians and the Department of Justice are trying to destroy encryption to make secret surveillance easier?

In all likelihood, I will download and participate in this app system when it's introduced. I live in Los Angeles in a neighborhood with a lot of families with older residents who are especially likely to have severe cases if they're exposed. But I wouldn't judge anybody who refuses to participate. The government already cried wolf. Now that they really need us to trust that they truly need to know where we are, they've already trained us not to believe them.

NEXT: The Google-Apple infection tracker has a privacy problem. Just not the one you think.

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  1. It’s always the government’s fault, isn’t it, Shackleford?

    1. Well, yes, it is.

    2. Who cares if people find out if they have had kungflu.

      End the hysteria and open the economy back up. This cough due to cold is less deadly than the hype.

    3. I agree. The guy sounds really paranoid. So much so, he missed an important point – that the insurance companies are frequently guilty of abusing their power. Especially in cases like this. When AIDS first emerged, if you went and got tested, insurance companies would pull all sorts of nasty tricks, like refusing to pay AIDS medical bills, or any illness remotely related to AIDS, when a person would start a new job. They considered it a “pre-existing condition”.

    4. “It’s always the government’s fault” — Yes, because governmental law’s only alternative is criminal. So unless you’re going to say “criminals are the only one’s who have no fault” then all governmental law is it’s own fault by its very nature of being dictative instead of anything else.

  2. Decline to share information? Now it’s mandatorily!

    1. Your voluntary participation is mandatory.

      1. I believe that is called being volentold

    2. My phone will travel power off in a farraday bag if that app becomes mandatory. I’d leave it at home, but there are times I make calls on the road. Maybe I’d get a burner phone for travel.

      The government lost my trust for data when they interned the Japanese based on census records; now I toss the damned thing, shred it, and when they come around in person, I tell them I already sent it in, wouldn’t it be a felony to send it in twice? And if they insist they didn’t get it, I ask if that means it’s not anonymous. They back off real quick and probably fill one out themselves.

      It’s bad enough google knowing everywhere I go. I’ll be damned if I let some government app spy on me.

      1. Burners are cheap. If you value your privacy, buy one.

        1. Yup. The fact that government wants all cell phones tied to a person means that they are violating our rights.

          There is not reason that cell phones cannot be 100% anonymous communication devices. You pay your bill to a random account number. If someone doesnt pay the cell service id cut off.

          No names, addresses, or social security numbers needed.

          1. What’s the point if every app knows who you are? Not to mention they know when you’re around other people who don’t hide their identity.

            There just isn’t a market for it. Burners are good enough how they are.

  3. Has any mainstream politician or candidate (the LP doesn’t count) even offered to pardon Snowden? Fuck anyone that didn’t. In other words, fuck them all. Including Rand.

    1. Snowden may be a psyop – I don’t trust him, although his information was welcome.

  4. if thousands of Americans (or Brits) refuse to assist public health agencies by opting into these apps, don’t blame them.

    How about the thousands of Americans (or Brits) who provide false information to these apps?

    1. something something British teeth

    2. Jail time. Might as well be texting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater like a terrorist.

      1. As someone said. Illegal to yell “fire” on a website.

    3. How about the most at risk old farts who don’t even have a cell phone?

      1. Or just have a flip phone… no apps

  5. In all likelihood, I will download and participate in this app system when it’s introduced. I live in Los Angeles in a neighborhood with a lot of families with older residents who are especially likely to have severe cases if they’re exposed.

    He’s doing his part!

    1. Pants officially shit up.

  6. >>For many Americans, the answer would be yes, many emphatically so.

    the fuck is the matter w/people?

  7. This surveillance is not being used to collect information to track the coronavirus. It’s being used to control people.

    Pretty much all of the government’s response to the pandemic has been aimed at controlling people, whether it’s shutting down “non-essential” business, “social distancing,” guidelines, stay at home orders, or what, this has been an authoritarian’s wet dream. The worst part is how many people have just accepted all of it without a second thought.

    1. They already have…

      1. oops, wrong post

    2. So what is your recommendation for slowing this down??

      1. Turn off tv.

  8. I was speaking just this afternoon to a friend that is in Taiwan. She maintains that the virus is under complete control, and that there has been no encroachment upon her civil liberties. When she arrived (from South Korea) she was placed in mandatory quarantine for two weeks and had to install government tracking software on her phone. After the two week period, a police officer was assigned to track all of her movements and business for the remainder of her trip. The officer checked in on her every other day, in full hazard gear, to ensure that she was not exhibiting symptoms.

    As she told me all that, she punctuated it with “and, really, I do not feel like this is a ‘police state,’ just common sense.” She is an American citizen from New York City.

    Suffice it to say, if push came to shove, I think the overwhelming majority of Americans would line up eagerly and surrender near every liberty they possess to the government without a second thought.

    1. New Yorkers are peas in a pod with other major city folk. When you are surrounded by 10,000 people in the mile around you, day after day, you develop a basic cynicism. You happily submit to constant nannying bullshit because even as bad as it is for you, at least it is keeping those other 10,000 people under control. Without these controls, those 10,000 other people you see every day might be doing things you disapprove of.

      I have had this basic conversation with every New Yorker I know. Even people who I grew up with that were severely conservative- when they came back from spending a decade in New York, they may have still been conservative, but they still had a deep underlying suspicion of their fellow man, and belief that the government is the only thing preventing complete anarchy.

      One guy I talked with was proud of the fact that AirBnB was being shut down by New York, and boasted about how New York could surveil everything in the city due to their dragnetting of every close circuit camera, ATM camera, and street light camera in the city. He was utterly convinced that the city was special and this was the ONLY way to protect it.

      1. Great points. Just another of many reasons to never set foot in the sewer system known euphemistically as New York City.

      2. This is the result of the population being too high.

        We need to downsize. Might as well throw some eugenics into the equation too – weed out some of the unnecessary traits.

    2. People willingly forget that 99.9% of the jews voluntarily packed up suitcases and went to train stations.

      Jews set up a museum to remind people of the horrors of Socialism (Nazism) and its free to get in.

      Luckily <50% of Americans are abiding by the tyrannical state dictates. Still scary how many Americans are justifying the tyranny.

  9. They already have…

  10. Or just have a flip phone… no apps

  11. “There’s mistrust of governments, both authoritarian and democratic, who might be able to track citizens and collect data via phones”

    Only an authoritarian government would ever do that, democratic (at least on paper) or not.

    “Let’s not pretend that this is simply a tool of authoritarian regimes.”

    That’s exactly what it is. It’s easy to identify the world’s authoritarian regimes right now– those are the ones that have issued mandatory lockdown orders for the virus.

    “After the passage of the PATRIOT Act, the National Security Agency (NSA) secretly implemented the collection and storage of mass amounts of Americans’ phone and internet metadata, without a warrant or any real justification other than to search through it for potential terrorist plotting.”

    Again, only an authoritarian government would ever do anything like that.

    1. Well stated.

  12. So what you’re saying is its alkyl the fault of those whistleblowers?

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