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Tech Tyranny: Coronavirus and the Big Data Grab

Tracking Americans' movements, and 5G theory faces censorship.

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.

The White House has so far resisted putting Americans under a blanket Coronavirus lockdown like those seen in some other parts of the world. Still, most states have decided to enforce social distancing anyway – and the rest are under pressure to do so, at least in the media.

Social Distancing Scoreboard

Unacast, a tech start-up that collects smartphone GPS data to give its clients insights into human activity, has created a Social Distancing Scoreboard of U.S. states. The company, using a combination oflocation data, map data, and strategic intelligence,” assigned a grading system to assess how well each state is doing in the social distancing mission. The United States received a C grade on the whole, with its middling 40-55% decrease in average mobility (based on distance traveled), and 60-65% decrease in nonessential visits.

Hawaii is the teacher’s pet and the only state to be awarded an A, with mobility and nonessential travel both down over 70%. The next best regions are Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Nevada, and New York, which all earned an A-, with citizen travel way down.

Among the naughtiest states are Arkansas, Utah, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, all with D-. And the official worst kid in class is Wyoming, the only state to actually “fail” on the scoreboard, where the average change in mobility and nonessential visits is less than 25%. However, it should be noted that the state only has 21 new COVID-19 cases recorded. Indeed, a browse through the data shows no apparent correlation between social distancing efforts and new Coronavirus cases – unless population density is also taken into account. As Eben Diskin of the Matador Network observes, “Sparsely populated states are receiving low social distancing grades from Unacast, but residents of those states often can’t avoid traveling long distances for essential services like grocery stores and pharmacies … especially compared to city residents who are able to get around easily on foot.” Is it really fair to give an F to the people of Wyoming and high marks to New York when the practical needs of each locale could hardly be more different? Rather, a scoreboard such as this seems designed to evaluate each state’s conformity, rather than its efficacy in dealing with a virus.

Update: Unfortunately, standards seem to be slipping, as social distancing grades are down across the U.S. The country has a whole has been demoted to a D, while only one region (D.C.) has retained it’s A-, with the others down to B- or lower. Even Hawaii has slipped from its star pupil position. Not only that, but numerous troublemakers have joined Wyoming in the principal’s office with Fs.

Where is Everyone, Anyway?

Google, not to be outdone, has launched a new website displaying movement data from around the U.S. and the globe. The anonymized data, taken from smartphone GPS tracking, is being used to reveal how good populations are at social distancing. These COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports reveal where people are going, and what habits have changed in time spent at venues for retail and recreation, groceries and pharmacies, parks, transit stations, workplaces, and residential homes. Apparently, retail and recreation are down 50% in Uganda, while the people of Aruba are far more concerned, reducing their leisure excursions a whopping 88% – but anyway …

The data comes from those who have opted-in to sending their smartphone Google Maps location data to the company; Google was at pains to emphasize the privacy considerations it had made. The information covers 131 countries with updates pending and is intended to “provide insights into what has changed in response to work from home, shelter in place, and other policies aimed at flattening the curve of this pandemic,” according to a Google blog post. The tech giant is also working with epidemiologists who it appears will use the social distancing data collected to predict where the disease will next spread. Also from the blog:

“In addition to other resources public health officials might have, we hope these reports will help support decisions about how to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, this information could help officials understand changes in essential trips that can shape recommendations on business hours or inform delivery service offerings …”

It continues: “Ultimately, understanding not only whether people are traveling, but also trends in destinations, can help officials design guidance to protect public health and essential needs of communities.”

So, what is the United States’ story when it comes to social distancing? The report shows:

  • Retail & recreation: -47%
  • Grocery & pharmacy visits: -22%
  • Parks: -19%
  • Transit stations: -51%
  • Workplaces: -38%
  • Residential: +12%

Visits to retail and recreational facilities are down across the board – and while some state populations are staying inside, others have made up for it by going to the park more than they ever did before. Whether trying to get some fresh air, or just out of boredom with their lack of other options, South Dakotans are heading to the park +126%.

A Fiery Debate

5G – is it the next frontier in technological progress, or a public health crisis waiting to happen? Some have suggested that this health crisis has already started, with COVID-19’s rapid spread a result of 5G both suppressing the human immune system and causing damage to DNA. While the media has notably attempted to quash it, the notion has spread on social media. It even received a boost from celebrity Woody Harrelson, who posted on his Instagram account a passage by one Martin Pall, a biochemist at Washington State University, noting that Wuhan had been chosen as the first 5G smart city in China, and suggesting a link between that fact and the severity of the virus.

While scientists have called the claims “complete rubbish,” the matter was taken to a new level when U.K. activists decided to act – namely, by burning down 5G transmission masts. Numerous towers have been set ablaze across Britain, with at least one video making it to social media – which, the British government has decided, had better not happen again.

One senior minister, Michael Gove, called the theory “dangerous nonsense.” At the same time, Oliver Dowden, the Digital and Culture Secretary, will reportedly instruct social media companies to stamp out fake news causing “criminal behavior.” A senior official reportedly told the press:

“This criminal behavior, based on crazed conspiracy theories, peddled on social media, puts lives at risk. Masts are actually being burned down. Let’s not forget that these masts serve emergency responders. This needs to stop and we are also calling on the tech firms to take more action to protect this kind of nonsense spreading on their platforms. The Culture Secretary will be speaking to the big tech firms shortly to hammer this message home.”

The official reportedly complained that Facebook-owned private messaging service WhatsApp was the primary channel through which the idea has spread – not the easiest outlet to control as its messages are famed for their encryption, which has notoriously infuriated governments.

Other social media platforms are already taking action to censor those blaming COVID-19 on 5G networks. On April 5, YouTube moved to suppress “conspiracy theories related to 5G and coronavirus, that could misinform users in harmful ways.” Any targeted videos will be demonetized and removed from search results on the site. The Google-owned site stated that it has manually checked and deleted thousands of videos that it claims spreads misleading or harmful information about the Coronavirus.

Facebook, too, has removed groups promoting the idea that 5G and the virus are linked, and activist site Change.org has deleted several petitions based on the same claims.

As the Coronavirus continues to take lives and livelihoods, it appears Big Tech is working to control the narrative and use the opportunity to gather as much information as it can about our daily lives.


Read more from Laura Valkovic.

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