Cellphone-Tracking Can Help Fight the Pandemic Only If Governments Resist Their Snoopy Instincts

Contact tracing might offer hope for slowing the spread of the pandemic—or fulfill every Big Brother-ish fear privacy advocates have ever raised.


In the battle against COVID-19, public health types desperately want the ability to track people's movements to test the effectiveness of social-distancing commandments and also to trace contacts between people who carry the disease and members of the public they may have inadvertently infected. Understandably in our device-crazed age, attention has turned to cellphones, those location beacons that most of us voluntarily carry.

Properly implemented, cellphone tracking might offer hope for slowing the spread of the pandemic. Improperly implemented—as has already happened—such monitoring promises to fulfill every Big Brother-ish fear privacy advocates have ever raised.

"When California officials wanted to see how closely people were following social distancing guidelines last month, they tapped a powerful new data set—a map that Facebook provided to state authorities derived from the location coordinates of tens of millions of smartphones," The Washington Post reported last week. "The map showed with alarming clarity that large numbers of people were still gathering on beaches and in public parks. Soon after, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ordered them closed to vehicles, sharply restricting access."

With its combination of the use of location data—however anonymous—shared without people's permission, and a resulting restrictive and likely counter-productive crackdown on the ability to escape to the healthy outdoors, the California case manages to be thoroughly creepy without any benefit.

South Korea's government at least manages to be creepy to some seemingly good end.

"South Korea quickly implemented legislation that would allow health officials to aggressively trace the footsteps of citizens who test positive for an emerging infectious disease. Using security camera footage, credit-card records, GPS data from cellphones and car navigation systems, they are able to pinpoint exactly where a person has been," notes MarketWatch.

South Koreans can also download apps that tap into government tracking data to get details on any infected people in their vicinity. The system is very intrusive, but arguably helps people reduce the risk of getting sick.

China cranked the creepy factor up to 11 by requiring people to use apps that monitor their movements, assess their supposed risk of infection, and then present the results as a color-coded QR code that has to be shown to authorities on request. "A green code shows the user is not under quarantine and can move around the city freely, but those with yellow and red codes need to quarantine themselves at home or undergo supervised quarantine respectively," according to the South China Morning Post.

Reports of privacy breaches, erroneous results, and an opaque appeals process were inevitable from any government-imposed system. They were especially unsurprising under an authoritarian regime.

Aware of earlier flaws and privacy invasions, public health scientists and their allies in the tech industry are pushing for contact-tracing that would be, well, less horrifying than what has gone before. Apple and Google are working together on a decentralized system that would use Bluetooth and pseudonyms to preserve privacy while alerting users to encounters with people likely to have the virus.

That sounds like a promising approach if it lives up to its billing. But already the tech companies are running up against resistance from French authorities, who want to preserve privacy between private citizens but allow governments to know people's identities.

European governments, overall, prefer systems they are developing themselves which are intentionally centralized and do away with anonymity.

"The Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing system, or PEPP-PT, is supported by German authorities and French institutions," reports Slate. "Where the decentralized approaches propose to generate pseudonyms on your phone, the PEPP-PT protocols generate your pseudonyms on a centralized server. This server will be able to link each pseudonym back to your real identity. Worse: If you're diagnosed positive, your phone will not simply upload the list of its own pseudonyms; it will also upload the identifiers of every person you've come into contact with so the authorities can track them down and notify them directly."

A system that nosy and centralized might be a hard sell to populations that have grown increasingly disenchanted with the powers-that be in recent years. The Chinese government has been able to strongarm much of its population into downloading and using tracking apps (though not without significant pushback), but few other governments have the clout to make that happen. Interestingly, even the de facto one-party regime in Singapore, which enjoys high levels of public trust, hasn't been able to get people to adopt its TraceTogether tracking app.

"More than a million users, or about one in five people here, have downloaded TraceTogether," the Straits Times of Singapore reveals. But "in order for TraceTogether to be effective, Singapore needs about three-quarters of the population to have it."

Privacy concerns play a major role in resistance to adopting the app. "I have no idea what kind of data is being taken away from me," one Singapore resident told the Wall Street Journal.

Imagine the reactions French and German officials will run into with apps explicitly designed to bypass privacy protections in countries where the population generally doesn't trust the state.

And, unless people are going to be forced to use these apps, public cooperation will be necessary for any tracking effort aimed at fighting the pandemic. To get that cooperation, people will have to be persuaded of the benefits to be had—most especially from contact-tracing (there's no reason to try to salvage California's "too many people are walking around in public" approach). And they'll need to be able to trust assurances that their privacy is protected.

If that's not forthcoming, cellphone users can sabotage most of these tracking efforts pretty easily. Turning off Bluetooth would hobble just about all the contract-tracing apps. Disabling location services and WiFi would do that much more to shield users' whereabouts.

In China, where tracking apps are mandatory, people have taken to installing anti-spying software and to owning two phones—one with tracking software to show the police and the other for sensitive travel and unapproved uses.

There are sophisticated tracking techniques that might allow the authorities to bypass the permissions we give to apps on our cellphones, but those are more appropriate for monitoring specific targets than for contact tracing. If their use becomes widespread, the most appropriate reaction might be to shut our phones off or learn, once again, to live without them.

The burden is on public health authorities to convince us that, by working with them, the new COVID-19 pandemic can be battled without making ourselves vulnerable to the ancient pestilence of official nosiness.

NEXT: Can Nicotine Treat COVID-19? French Researchers Think So.

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  1. NoNoNo no No No No No No No

    1. What?!?! You value your privacy over your PUBIC HEALTH?!?! Citizen, that is NOT allowed! Please keep in mind, tracking your whereabouts can ALSO keep you SAFE from dangerous medical implements of mass destruction, like any unprescribed dreaded cheap-plastic “lung flutes of death”!

      In the utterly apoplectically apocalyptic days, STAY SAFE!!!

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      1. The worst outcome of the Wuhan pandemic is that I’m agreeing with sqrls on some things

        1. Do you normally think that lung flutes should require a prescription?

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    3. Best thing to do? Leave the da#n cell or smart phone at home. Totally ruins their data. . .

      Thinking real seriously about going back to an older flip phone. Sure it’s pingable, but doesn’t have all sorts of pesky apps that might offer services they don’t advertise, like letting some know exactly where you are, without consent. .

  2. “Because I’m a snake bitch”

  3. Are the Karens eager to be traced now the same people who last year screamed about FacePlant selling their data to some company who merely wanted to sell them shit?

    1. Without question.

      Karen loves Daddy Government.

    2. Last year it was Facebook, this year it was the government. Government is like your HOA, right? They preserve your property values and prevent that nasty Jill down the street from parking her SUV in the driveway and letting her feral houseapes run around making noise.

  4. Aargh. Contact tracing just isn’t going to work for a respiratory virus that has been around for several months. Maybe it could work if you catch it very early when there are 100s of cases. But it’s pretty clear now that many millions have been or are infected. No fucking way contact tracing can be effective. Maybe it could still work in rural areas where there are very few infections. But even then I don’t see it being worth the expense and invasion of privacy. In a place like NY, it’s completely absurd. There are probably well over a million people who have been infected there. Tracing contacts is going to mean tracing the whole city. Which is pointless.

    1. Tracing contacts is going to mean tracing the whole city.

      Feature, not a bug.

      1. It’s the Dark Knight machine. Awesome! The Joker is in for it now!

  5. Nevermind the privacy concerns (they are very real), my freedoms are not subject to your shitty data analysis. Say no to technocrats!

  6. These tracing apps have me puzzled. There is the one warning you if you are near someone marked with the digital ‘A’ as having the disease; great, if those who have it (a) KNOW they have it, and (b) are willing to go out in public in spite of having it. Or IOW, if you are so dumb as to go out in public with a big flashing sign “STUPID HERE IS INFECTIOUS AND VIOLATING QUARANTINE”. But at least that app can handle anonymous and transient contacts and not need to record anything.

    Then there is the app to be used once infected for finding who you had contact with once while contagious but before you were found to be infected. This damned thing has to record everyone you’ve been near for the past couple of weeks at least. Thousands of people if you live anywhere other than the boonies, and even those in the boonies will have had to visit stores once in a while. Why would anyone want to let the government track all that info? Beyond creepy!

    1. Because giving up our economic freedom and privacy rights is the only way to fight off a bad case of the sniffles!

      Gosh! What’s so hard to understand about that?

    2. It’s impossible. It’s just stupid. You can’t do contact tracing when millions have been exposed. If it was going to have any chance of working, it needed to be done in February. It’s too fucking late. No tracking or general distancing is going to do anything besides prolong the pain. People need to stop being such fucking pussies and get back to life. There is no rational reason for any healthy person to be hiding from this.

    3. I know of at least one person who gave a phone number to officials when tested that was not hers. . .

      Imagine the surprise on someones face.

  7. “The map showed with alarming clarity that large numbers of people were still gathering on beaches and in public parks.”

    It also showed with clarity that these people were separating by at least six feet, right? RIGHT?!

  8. Like government needs your permission to install apps on your phone. In the first place, it’s not your phone – as with most software and software-equipped electronics, you didn’t actually buy the device you merely bought a license to use the device and nobody ever said it was an exclusive license. Plus, there’s the third-party doctrine which says the data isn’t actually yours – and the third-party doctrine has been around long enough that I’m sure it has achieved precedential stare decisis status. Isn’t that right, Justice Kavanaugh?

    1. Besides which, I’m pretty sure they don’t actually need an app for that, between data analytics companies like Palantir, Google, Facebook, the telcos, and the intelligence community, there’s already a program “Show me all the people in [blank] that have been to [blank] within the last [blank] hours” and “Show me all their contacts within [blank] feet within the last [blank] hours”. All they have to enter is “the US”, “healthcare facility” and “336” in the first query, and “50” and “336” in the second and within a few minutes, or however long it takes the computer to compile a list of 335 million names, you’ve got your answer to how many people have been exposed to the coronavirus, exposed to somebody who’s been exposed to the coronavirus, or exposed to somebody who’s been exposed to somebody who’s been exposed to the coronavirus. Which is “everybody”.

    2. Government doesn’t need you to install an app to track you.

    3. Well, time to start wrapping my phone in tinfoil, I guess.

  9. Welcome to the revolution.
    I suggest everyone download the app, get outside with four or five other conspirators, and, from six or more feet away, wearing gloves,
    throw the phones back and forth until the cops show up.
    Demand jury trials, and demonstrate reasonable doubt.

    Or better still, leave your phones at home when you attempt to exercise what freedoms you have left.

    1. Eff that, just don’t own one of the silly things to begin with. Get a basic flip-phone that you can stick in your car or wherever, powered down, for those times when you want a now no-existent payphone or for honest-to-gawds emergencies. Aside from that, why do you need to be constantly online / available by phone to begin with? Need to be contacted? Sorry, you’re really not that important. Need to look something up? Practice memorization and understanding. Need a map? Dead reckoning worked well enough for most of history. Need to chat with your buds while you walk the dog? Enjoy Fido. Music while you drive? Take the GD plugs out of your ears – you’re supposed to be focused on the road!

      Yup, I’m a dinosaur, and proud of it!

      1. Yeah. Phone technology peaked with the answering machine. If I’m out doing something, I’m too busy to yap on the phone. I’ll call you back when I’m home with nothing to do.

    2. Better still, give your phone to a trusted friend via your mailbox to leave at a rural PO box or bus station locker for you to pick up.

      Or just spoof the coordinates.

  10. Freewheeling Hank sez:
    Rights will get you through times of no collectivism better than collectivism will get you through times of no rights.

    1. I like that, I may borrow it some day!

    2. Nice.
      “…one more step and I’ll take these drugs, turn into super-hippie and kick your ass.” or something like that.

      1. Super hippies don’t kick ass; they just puff puff pass.

  11. People who trade liberty for security deserve neither, or something like that

  12. As long as James Clapper is a free man, I will never trust our government not to snoop and lie.

    1. As long as John Brennan is breathing, I’d say. Maybe John Brennan and anybody he’s ever had contact with.

      1. I should have included the caveat: Others as well.

        And I’ll leave you with a quote from GW Bush ” There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

        1. wouldn’t be prudent.

        2. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

          I always hear Roger Daltry howling those lyrics when I see that quote.

  13. i love when your titles elicit lolz

    1. Pretty sure JD wrote this one just for the comments. Something to bring us all together during these troubled times.

  14. “…Only If Governments Resist Their Snoopy Instincts…”

    I needed a laugh this morning.

    1. You’re more charitable than me.

  15. “”Only If Governments Resist Their Snoopy Instincts”””

    That’s pretty funny.

  16. I think as long as we have a secret court to provide oversight over this process, it should be fine.

    1. If you know about that court, it is not secret, is it?
      The real problem is the court that really is secret.

      1. Easy.

        Two layers of courts and spies: a “secret” court to oversee the secret court to oversee the “secret” spying which oversees the secret spying.

  17. Cellphone-Tracking Can Help Fight the Pandemic Only If Governments Resist Their Snoopy Instincts


    No, cell phone tracking can help fight the pandemic whether or not the government uses cell phone access to snoop.

    And they will snoop. And they will use this access to continue to snoop, forever.

    So, the question is – is it worth it?

    That’s the question we should be trying to get people to ask in every situation where granting government more power comes up – is it worth it? Will granting this power provide a solution? Will the solution be a net benefit?

    Once you start viewing things in that lens – and this is how we should be trying to get others to view the government – the answer is almost invariably ‘no’.

    1. Now if only someone could design a governmental architecture to keep that sort of thing in check. I wonder what it would look like?
      Or how long it would last.

      1. “…Or how long it would last…”

        Until some chicken littles get scared of a boogy-man.

        1. Or until the the takers realize that they can outvote the producers.

  18. If you declined to get tested and no one knows whether you’re infected or not, the government has no business tracking your phone or credit card purchases. I sometimes suck on a cough drop when my nose gets plugged – should the government think I’m infected after scanning my purchase history?

    Korea is a collectivist / surveillance state that’s often gripped by group think and trends. Back in 2007 that entire nation thought American beef was tainted with mad cow disease and staged massive anti American boycotts. CCTVs (as well as secret cams in hotels and bathrooms) are everywhere and many drivers have cameras in their cars as preventive measures against scammers who try to stage accidents. Cyber police can identify people who leave troll comments online and drag them to the station.

    The herd mentality and deference to authority figure (as wells a culture of wearing masks) probably helped Korea manage the situation better. But in the big picture it remains a borderline banana republic where privacy laws, economic freedom and protection for domestic violence victims is weak for a nation regarded as a democracy.

  19. “Cellphone-Tracking Can Help Fight the Pandemic Only If Governments Resist Their Snoopy Instincts”

    They can resist snooping only if we put unicorns in charge of the department of snooping.

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  22. I don’t mind if the government wants to use basic data during this such as where are clusters of people gathering that MAY cause an issue but to download some program saying that you have tested positive or have anti-bodies and then track everywhere you go and relay that to some central site using some “secure token” isn’t going to happen. That “secure token” no doubt identifies something personal. Whether it be the phone number, Smartphone ID, SIM Card ID or something else, it will easily be traceable if the government wanted that info. Are you telling me if they got a phone number they couldn’t go to AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon and say give us this info and then we are sending the police for breaking local laws? Police are already using drones to fly over houses to determine if people are breaking laws. They won’t hesitate to get more data in an easier way.

    I say No to this this and if that means without providing some sort of app identifier that I am “safe” can’t gain access to certain places than so be it.

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