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Tech Tyranny: Contact Tracing – the Next Step in Coronavirus Surveillance

Google and Apple team up, and will the U.S. follow Asian examples in contact tracing?

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.

Contact tracing – that is, tracking who people have come into contact with – is already emerging as the next big thing in Coronavirus surveillance. This usually laborious process of investigation is evolving into its next stage. Although the U.S. is still reliant on the conventional methods, lawmakers are urging the Trump administration to move ahead with contact tracing, and states are putting forward their own plans using electronic databases. But the next step is to automate it.

Google & Apple Join Forces

Two of the world’s biggest tech rivals, Google and Apple, surprised everyone by announcing a joint effort to build contact tracing software directly into their iOS and Android operating systems – which currently run almost every smartphone in existence.

The software will allow phones to pick up short-range Bluetooth signals from each other, letting the devices see who has come into contact with whom. Essentially, when two people meet, their phones will exchange information (an anonymous identification key) and record the encounter.

This does not mean Google and Apple will collate the information in a neat little package for officials. Governments and public health authorities who wish to gather the data will need to develop their own apps as vessels to use this information. Members of the public could enter their health status into whatever apps are employed in their region; if that status is something like “I’ve caught Coronavirus,” an alert would be sent automatically to those who are recorded as having come into contact with that person.

The initiative quickly came under fire for its privacy implications. Apple and Google highlighted the privacy measures taken, and the program has since been praised in the media as the best of a bad lot. Protections include:

  • The software will operate on an opt-in basis, with explicit user consent required.
  • The software won’t collect personally identifiable information or GPS location data.
  • The list of people with whom users have been in contact never leaves their phone.
  • People who test positive for Coronavirus are not identified personally to others.
  • The service will only be made available to public health authorities for pandemic management.

Despite these measures, it is not hard to find critiques describing workarounds that could be used to access personal, location, and identifying information – such as linking identities to phone IP addresses. Not to mention, these companies haven’t exactly proven themselves trustworthy in the past.

During a daily briefing earlier in April, President Trump gave a mixed response to the project, praising the capabilities yet questioning the constitutionality:

“Well, it’s an amazing thing, but a lot of people have some very big constitutional problems with it. You know that. It’s an amazing thing, and it would be — actually, as you know, other countries are thinking about using something similar but not as good – That would be a very accurate way of doing it, but a lot of people have a problem with it.”

“We have more of a constitutional problem than a mechanical problem,” he said, adding that his administration would be discussing the matter. The software is set to be handed over to app developers this week.

Contact Tracing in Singapore and Korea

The president lauded Singapore’s effort, one of the first at automated contact tracing. Like the Google and Apple software, Singapore‘s TraceTogether app uses Bluetooth signals to exchange information between devices in close proximity. A review by the University of Melbourne criticized the privacy protections of the app, yet the main issue reported by the press is that not enough users downloaded the app to make it useful.

At about one million downloads, only about 20% of the city-state’s population has been willing to use the app. “In order for TraceTogether to be effective, we need something like three-quarters – if not everyone – of the population to have it. Then we can really use that as an effective contact-tracing tool,” Singapore’s National Development Minister Lawrence Wong told The Straits Times. Covid Watch, a group developing a contact tracing app in the U.S., has said that at least 60% of the population needs to participate to stop the virus spreading. Will a freedom-conscious U.S. population already fed up with lockdown measures submit to this kind of surveillance? Is it a bridge too far, or will they see it as a welcome method of escaping lockdown?

Besides the privacy and consent issues, the major criticism aimed at contact-tracing apps is that they can only work in conjunction with widespread, accurate testing. Without actual Coronavirus testing of the population, this technology’s only task is to record social interactions.

South Korea, too, impressed the world by quickly taming the virus – not with enforced lockdowns, but with contact tracing, GPS location tracking, video surveillance, credit card records, efficient and widespread testing, and social distancing. While its response has been widely extolled, success was not without costs. Rather than asking the public to download an app, the authorities took a top-down approach, publishing information about confirmed cases.

When a person tested positive for COVID-19, the Seoul government sent out text messages, along with media and online reports – with details in some cases including, according to LA Times Correspondent Victoria Kim, the birth year, sex, profession, travel history, district of residence, contact with known cases, and the hospital where they were being treated. Talk about being able to determine a person’s identity from clues. This information reportedly led to some harassment and doxxing of infected persons and their families.

Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Young-ae Choi, responded to the disregard for personal privacy in a statement:

“It is hard to dispute the need for disclosing the time and names of the places they visited to help prevent further spread of the virus. However, the authorities are currently providing more information than is necessary to stop the spread of disease, leading to a violation of privacy and human rights of an infected person. Furthermore, the release of personal data may result in secondary damages as patients become the target of criticism, taunts, and hatred online.”

The commission called on the authorities to limit the information published to “the time and names of locations visited by infected people, rather than providing the travel history of each individual, and specify disinfection and protective measures taken by the public health authorities for these locations.”

Singapore has now opened its technology to the world, evidently hoping it will be adopted by more countries. Others are hoping to use the Google and Apple software. How will contact tracing evolve in the U.S.?

That’s all for this week from Tech Tyranny. Check back next week to find out what’s happening in the digital realm and how it impacts you.


Read more from Laura Valkovic.

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