Beware COVID-19 tracking: Emergency powers can outlive their emergencies

Mass surveillance methods pitched to save lives around the world, which permit fast, accurate COVID-19 tracking by authorities that was not possible during prior pandemics, might never go away, even after an effective COVID-19 vaccine has inoculated the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extraordinary moment that has some, less-farsighted, perhaps even nefarious, officials calling for extraordinary surveillance methods. In countries with more restrictive governments and few, if any, personal freedoms or privacy rights, these extraordinary surveillance method are simply imposed on citizens.

Sam Biddle for The Intercept:

COVID-19 trackingThe coronavirus tracking ramp-up is already well underway around the world. In South Korea, Taiwan, and Israel, authorities use smartphone location data to enforce individual quarantines. Moscow police say they’ve already busted 200 quarantine violators caught via facial recognition-enabled cameras. NSA contractor and perennial privacy offender Palantir is helping Britain’s National Health Service track infections. Apps that leverage a smartphone’s bounty of built-in, highly accurate sensors to enforce social distancing or map the movements of the infected have been deployed in Singapore, Poland, and Kenya…

In the U.S., public health officials, hoping to assess broad compliance with stay-at-home orders and to spot dangerous crowding, are obtaining personal location data in bulk from loosely-regulated online advertisers, and have discussed obtaining it from Google, according to news reports…

These surveillance methods have been enabled by the rise of the smartphone and cloud computing — and of an entire tracking ecosystem around them. Over the past decade or so, the kindred spirits of the advertising industry and intelligence community have worked tirelessly and on parallel tracks to perfect their exploitation of the unimaginably vast trails of personal data collected through various mobile apps. The ability to learn your location and predict your behavior is priceless to both Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, whether the ultimate goal is to target you with a Warby Parker ad or a Hellfire missile…

There’s a glaring problem: We’ve heard all this before. After the September 11 attacks, Americans were told that greater monitoring and data sharing would allow the state to stop terrorism before it started, leading Congress to grant unprecedented surveillance powers that often failed to preempt much of anything. The persistence and expansion of this spying in the nearly two decades since, and the abuses exposed by Snowden and others, remind us that emergency powers can outlive their emergencies.

MacDailyNews Take: They’ll tell you the COVID-19 tracking data is secure and protected. You know, just like Equifax did before the personal information of 140+ million people, nearly half the population of the U.S., was stolen (and has since, perplexingly, seemingly disappeared).
Again: No location data is truly anonymized. It can be cross-matched with other publicly-available data to identify and track individuals. The idea of any government using cellphone tracking to monitor its citizens’ movements, regardless of the reason, is chilling.
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. — Benjamin Franklin


    1. Sometimes conspiratorial thinking can be for the nuts, but sometimes not. We are in a period where govt attempts to rearrange the deck chairs for “our safety”, or the the “betterment” of the country/culture.

      When the US Fed is involved in “benevolent” actions, my conspiratorial drummer beats hard and fast. Though not tracking for our virus-safety, the Fed was reportedly going to be the “guardian” of the relief money distributed to those qualifying. “Digital dollars” was noted in the 1400+ page Pelosi bill, both as a new “term” and new “method” of sending the relief money. To many, I’ll guess, it sounds benign, but when one realizes what the Fed has done for decades and what their doing now–as they seek to “help” us out of the hole–it’s not benign at all. They’ve proven themselves to NOT HAVE the credibility to be your individual banker, digital, or otherwise. Imagine a future where indi-banks are routing directly to the control of the Fed. Cash-less society has been a goal for decades and the Fed will be the banker in the future. I don’t think this is nutty-conspiratorialist thinking.

      Fortunately, the wording was (curiously) scrubbed, but I’ll guess it’s hardly the 1st we’ll hear of the Fed’s “digital dollar.”

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