Editor’s Note – As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
On the subject of U.S. Coronavirus contact tracing – the practice of tracking down the social interactions of those who have contracted the illness – Dr. Anthony Fauci recently said: “It’s not going well. I have to tell you, it’s not going well.” What briefly looked like an imminent tidal wave of surveillance now appears to be receding. After all, what’s the point in tracking Americans’ social activity when thousands of people have gathered on the streets with strangers in rarely seen displays of civil unrest? That goes especially when contact tracers aren’t allowed to ask members of the public whether they have attended a protest – as is the case in New York. In that city, it appears we have not just an encroachment on liberty, but a pointless one.
While the Coronavirus has taken a back seat in recent weeks, voices in the media and government are piping up to bring it back into the spotlight. States are having mixed success with their efforts, but tech solutions have failed to launch across the nation. A June 30 report by website 9to5mac backs up previous information that few states are prepared to use apps based on Google and Apple’s newly released contact tracing software. Even California told the outlet it would not be using the tech, despite reportedly training 20,000 out-of-work professionals to make contact tracing phone calls.
The major stumbling block in the U.S. – far more so than in many other countries – has been that of privacy.
Most Americans Reject Contact Tracing Tech
A June 1 online survey of Americans gives some insight into public attitudes toward contact tracing apps – and the feedback isn’t exactly supportive. According to cybersecurity company Avira and research firm Opinion Matters, 71% of respondents said they would not download a contact tracing app. The most common reason was concern over privacy at 44%, followed by 39% saying it would give a false sense of security, 37% believing an app would be ineffective at limiting the disease, and 35% saying they don’t trust the app providers.
The survey also brought forth a few perhaps unexpected results:
- Trust in Silicon Valley was greater than that in government tech, with 32% saying they would trust Google/Apple to keep their data private, while only 14% said the same of government. However, the largest portion, 40%, said they would trust no one with the information. Around 75% of Americans thought their data would be in danger if the government had access to it.
- Government and health care workers were the least likely to download contact tracing apps, with 84% saying they wouldn’t. By contrast, the technology was most popular in the sector developing it; 64% of IT workers said they would download it. Perhaps this indicates what is really driving these apps – it’s not necessarily health.
- Women were more resistant than men, with 18% of women saying they would download it, compared to 40% of men.
- Unsurprisingly, the 55+ age group was the least willing to use the technology. However, younger age groups weren’t the keenest. The 35-44 age group was the most open to the tech, but even that demographic ranked contact tracing apps as the biggest threat to digital privacy in 2020.
The results certainly do not bode well for contact tracing systems that rely on voluntary public participation.
An Ounce of Prevention
In early June, a group of senators introduced the Exposure Notification Privacy Act to ensure that any digital contact tracing program would be voluntary and limited in scope. The bill does not apply to tracing methods like telephone calls or health databases but targets automated digital notification systems in the manner of apps now being developed around the world.
Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA) initiated the bipartisan bill, which proposes to:
- Require that public health officials be involved.
- Allow only diagnoses confirmed by a health care provider/public health authority to be submitted, to prevent false reports.
- Require that participation be voluntary and based on express consent.
- Prohibit any commercial use of data.
- Let users delete their data at any time.
- Prohibit discrimination based on the information provided or a refusal to participate.
- Install security safeguards.
- Give enforcement powers to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general.
This isn’t the first privacy bill introduced during the Coronavirus crisis; four Republican lawmakers previously announced plans for a COVID-19 Consumer Data Protection Act which would aim to limit the collection and use of Americans’ location data.
The lack of public and congressional enthusiasm did not affect Google and Apple’s decision, toward the end of June, to install their “exposure notification” contact tracing software onto smartphones operating via the Android or iOS systems. The technology cannot operate – at least, as far as we have been informed – without users downloading an app that utilizes the software, or if a phone’s Bluetooth is disabled.
Fake Coronavirus contact tracing activity is circulating for the purpose of stealing financial data, the Department of Justice (DOJ) warned on June 30. In partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission, the DOJ advised that victims have received fraudulent “text messages or telephone calls seeking money, or Social Security, bank account, or credit card numbers, along with other sensitive information not required for authentic contact tracing.”
The agencies said that although government-employed contact tracers may approach members of the public, they would not ask for financial information. “You may receive a call, email, text, or visit from a contact tracer, and you should not hesitate to talk with them,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But, beware if they ask you for money, bank account information, your Social Security number, or to click on a link, as those are sure signs of a scam.”
Using the Coronavirus Blueprint
If one were concerned that lessons learned during the Coronavirus outbreak would be applied in a tyrannical future, then a May statement by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington won’t prove reassuring.
Amid violent protests a few days after the death of George Floyd, the commissioner said at a press conference, “We’ve begun analyzing the data of who we have arrested, and begun, actually, doing what you would think as almost very similar to our COVID [response]. It’s contact tracing. Who are they associated with? What platforms are they advocating for?”
Contact tracers and privacy advocates soon responded in alarm. Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tweeted, “This is not contact tracing! What is described in the video is police work. To see the two linked jeopardizes the credibility of public health, which needs community trust to work effectively.”
Harry Halpin, CEO of privacy tech company Nym, added, “The real danger is that COVID tracing apps in the name of public health will be weaponized against dissidents, which is why we must support decentralized alternatives.”
With the public exhibiting such distrust in those who wish to collect their data, how will the Coronavirus change life in America, going forward?
That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next Monday to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.
Read more from Laura Valkovic.