The US Government Is Also Looking At Increasing Domestic Surveillance To Fight The Spread Of The Coronavirus

from the big-brother-just-wants-to-make-sure-you're-healthy dept

Say hello to the coronavirus and goodbye to privacy. The government is working with a variety of tech companies — including infamous analytics companies like Palantir — to get a grasp on the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, this means the data citizens have generated for a variety of tech companies will become a handy way to track them and their movements, especially if they’re infected or in contact with those who are.

Technology giant Palantir Inc., which was credited with helping to find Osama bin Laden, is helping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention model the virus outbreak. Other companies that scrape public social-media data have contracts in place with the agency and the National Institutes of Health, documents show.

The push is in part being coordinated by a task force working in conjunction with the White House, and includes startups as well as tech giants such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit, Facebook Inc. and Inc. The task-force discussions involving the White House and tech companies were reported by The Wall Street Journal on Sunday.

The legal limits on what the government can grab from service providers and platforms are pretty much waived if there’s a national emergency. No one’s arguing the spread of the virus isn’t at least a crisis. But only a few people are arguing this justifies domestic surveillance aided and abetted by an abundance of third party records. Normally, the government would have to show at least reasonable suspicion before collecting these records from third parties, but it won’t even need this minimal, individualized showing if it can declare this an emergency.

Even privacy-focused legislators seem to be on board with broad harvesting of location data for this reason.

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, is among the lawmakers who have been briefed on the discussions. In a statement, Sen. Wyden said the efforts are sensible as long as the appropriate conditions are in place. “There must be procedures to keep this information safe, to delete information once it’s no longer in use, and to ensure it isn’t used against Americans by law enforcement,” he said.

Good luck ensuring it isn’t used by law enforcement. The only thing keeping them honest, for the most part, is their own honesty — something that seems rarely an innate part of US law enforcement. Even if things appear to be above-board, parallel construction can whitewash info gathered by government agencies purportedly for tracking the spread of the coronavirus.

What we don’t have at this point in time is many details on how this would happen and what constraints would be placed on data collection and use. But what little we do have isn’t promising.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

First off, anonymized data is never truly “anonymized.” With very little effort, data can be stripped of its anonymity to identify the people who generated the data. Second, if efforts already in place in other countries are any indication, this is only the starting point, not the entire plan. Government agencies are going to want to track infected citizens in order to ensure/enforce self-quarantining and track potentially-infected friends and acquaintances of those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19.

Location data is what the administration wants — something no longer under the purview of the Third Party Doctrine thanks to the Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision.

In recent interviews, Facebook executives said the U.S. government is particularly interested in understanding patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through data the company collects from users who allow it.

Google is saying pretty much the same thing. Government officials and health experts want access to location data. At this point, the government seems willing to collect this data in aggregate form to predict trends and determine the impact of social distancing and local bans on gatherings.

An open letter to tech companies from dozens of engineers and epidemiologists suggests the government should have this data, but possibly only with the approval of platform users who would have to opt-in. It’s a little disconcerting to read a call for handing over user location info to the government coupled with complimentary reference to China’s surveillance state.

Apple, Google, and other mobile operating system vendors should work to provide an opt-in, privacy preserving OS feature to support contact tracing. Users who opt in could be notified in a non-identifiable way if they had been in the same spaces as subsequently identified cases, in order to enable self-quarantine, monitoring, early detection and prevention of tertiary cases. If such a feature could be built before SARS-CoV-2 is ubiquitous, it could prevent many people from being exposed. In the longer term, such infrastructure could allow future disease epidemics to be more reliably contained, and make large scale contact tracing of the sort that has worked in China and Korea, feasible everywhere.

At this point, everything is still in the planning and development stages. Google and Facebook collect tons of user info, including their locations, and it is true tracking people’s movements — even in “anonymized” form — might slow the spread of the virus. There’s a tradeoff here, one that isn’t limited to this disease. The government — without directly asking — wants people to sacrifice some of their privacy for the benefit of the nation as a whole. But there’s no expiration date on the request and there’s no ensuring this will actually benefit the nation. And once the government is in, it’s going to be very hesitant to step back out. There’s always another emergency just over the horizon.

I’m all for a completely voluntary system that fully informs citizens who opt in what their rights are, one of which should be the right to revoke consent at any point in time. Anything else sounds like a convenient way to engage in domestic surveillance and ignore the Constitutional protections afforded to these particular third-party records. And while I appreciate tech companies’ willingness to do anything they can to curb the spread of the virus, they should be asking the tough questions that need to be asked on behalf of their millions of users, rather than deciding they can contribute to the greater good of the public without asking for the public’s permission.

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Comments on “The US Government Is Also Looking At Increasing Domestic Surveillance To Fight The Spread Of The Coronavirus”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

"Never let a good tragedy go to waste."

Upheaval greases the gears of tyranny like nothing else. Too bad no-one is ever concerned about it before, during, and after the event that caused it. Oh well. Here’s to yet another freedom lost as we continue ever toward the drain.

ECA (profile) says:

This Aint the black plague which is due int eh next 50 years.

I can tell you the records that need to be looked at, and there is lettle reason to do 90% of this.
Check all the incoming flights from Hong kong, compare with the Corp stooges going back and forth since Jan 1.
See who got sick.

How long has it been since they really did security at international airports looking for Disease. This has happened enough times that its getting to a point, that "Small world" syndrome has a BIG meaning.
When it takes 4-20 hours to get across, the oceans to the America’s, anything can get here Fairly quick. Its not weeks and months any more.
From Sampling the Air inside the aircraft before Getting off, to Heat and basic medical scanners for all incoming persons. Or do you want the 2 weeks in isolation??
Then watch the Corps, politicians, and rich get around it.

This is just another backdoor into our medical files. Even an anon file system to centrally locate All medical data has never been built. And if it is, and the corps OWN IT. it will still cost the citizens MONEY.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This Aint the black plague which is due int eh next 50 years

This is the BIG ONE preppers have been prepping for. This outbreak could last indefinitely and come back in waves. Personally, I believe this was intentionally delivered to the manufacturing center of the world to further the new world order’s agenda of creating this global catastrophe to grab the world by the balls, so I believe there will be more of this disease spreading around the planet that is now wobbling out of control. I told you something like this was possibly already in the works two months ago, when I said areonautics would be the death of us all because deadly pathogens could be transported within hours around the planet. I am beside myself at how fucking right I was. (I’m not right that often..)

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: This Aint the black plague which is due int eh next 50 y

"This is the BIG ONE preppers have been prepping for."

Hardly. The virus itself will eventually get beaten. It doesn’t kill enough people to turn real life into the fallout post-apocalyptica franchise. What is going to hit us far harder is the fact that the economy has been allowed to develop itself without ANY margins, as we saw in the 2008 shadow banking/mortgage crisis.

That means the economy is rapidly heading into a nosedive and ever more public money will have to be invested into keeping the private sector from going down like a lead balloon. A number of market sectors have already effectively ceased to exist with layoffs in numbers not seen in the US since 1920.

Getting beyond THAT is going to be the big challenge.

You want the real doomsday scenario? Ebola Mayinga mutates beyond current vaccines and develops a three week incubation period. Say g’bye to nine out of ten people.

Anonymous Coward says:

What data is wanted? isn’t letting me in, and the "Tech vs COVID-19" page describes common-sense policies that don’t require surveillance and have minimal impact on civil liberties.

What surveillance data are people after, and what would they wish to do with it? The statement that "anonymized data is never truly anonymized" isn’t necessarily true; if they’re collecting daily transaction counts from large grocery stores, for example, there’s little room to invade the privacy of any individual (full reciepts, sure, that would be bad). I wouldn’t object, either, if they wanted a shopping-by-time-of-day histogram or near-realtime hand sanitizer inventory.

Personanongrata says:

* I Have a Dream ...

The US Government Is Also Looking At Increasing Domestic Surveillance To Fight The Spread Of The Coronavirus

Convenience, productivity, expediency, fighting the spread of a virus (etc) are not sufficient reasons to surrender our privacy (ie liberty) as without privacy there can be no liberty – only tyranny.

Tonight – in the spirit of rebellion that founded this once great republic – on the stroke of midnight all liberty minded persons smash your stupid phone in protest to the all encompassing total surveillance state we a forced to endure/fund.

In the immortal words of Patrick Henry:

Give me liberty or give me death

*Title was borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Upstate New York doesn’t want a flood of untested Coronavirus fleeers. Cuomo forget about the political carreer and lockdown NYC. Shut down the bridges and tunnels.NOW! NYC has an infection rate of (.1%) which is 20% higher than the average for the rest of the country and NY has (HALF) of the country’s total infected.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Nobody will escape exposure to this virus. If you don’t get exposed this season you’ll be exposed in the next. The world has this now, just like the flu, and we’ll be reading about COVID-19 (and variants) for the rest of our lives.

Self-isolation, curfews, quarantines… These are means to slow the virus, not stop it. It cannot be stopped. But it can be slowed so that medical services can keep up and treat everyone.

Strap in, prepare to wait this out however long it takes. But don’t take it out on your fellow man out of fear of being exposed to the virus. You will be exposed even if those folks don’t head your way trying to avoid the virus themselves. It’s only a matter of time. Be prepared.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Cuomo forget about the political carreer and lockdown NYC."

That…will arguably kill more people in NYC than COVID-19 ever could.

As many have stated that you will eventually get infected is guaranteed. This season or the next.

Currently what we’re doing is playing for time enough for research to come up with viable treatments to keep patients alive, and to develop a possible vaccine.

That being so, just read up on the recommended guidelines on the CDC website and keep…as calm as you can.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Hanlon’s razor

But what if they are smart enough to fake it? (this is hard to believe)

Donald could act like he is really out of touch while actually being a super villain. (Where is his evil volcanic lair?)

Or maybe he is just their stooge and he gets out of control, still their execution has been horrible even if I assume they are trying to look stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I saw a movie not long ago in which the government had tricked two factions into hunting each other by tracing tracking systems in their necks and looking through the special goggles they could see aliens. Until they eventually figured out the government had tricked them. And then I get this correlation between the number of infected to the number of tested and it is not beyond the scope of possibility here. Now, that would be something wouldn’t it.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

If only for purpose creep...

Medical surveillance could be a good thing.

Eras ago, I argued from a science fiction level that medical surveillance based on the Google model (also of eras past) could actually serve the public well, especially if it gathers incidents of a given affliction (say, cerebral stroke) and tracks the histories of the subjects for common factors. These days we rely on witness accounts which are notoriously unreliable.

The problem, of course, is that massive amounts of surveillance data is irresistible to law enforcement, including secret police forces who hunt dissidents that pose a danger to the regime rather than criminals, and a medical system like the one above would quickly be utilized to keep The Party in power.

Since (so far) we’ve been incapable of a cultural or political solution, we’d need a technological solution (which may be as impossible as secure encryption backdoors.)

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