Governments Around The World Are Tracking Their Citizens' Movements To Prevent The Spread Of COVID-19

from the our-new-pervasive-overlords-etc. dept

In an effort to turn an unmitigated disaster into something a bit more mitigated, governments around the world are heading towards the "drastic" end of the scale to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Cities and everything in them have been effectively shut down. Preventing the spread of the virus depends a lot on the voluntary cooperation of citizens to self-report and self-quarantine. Meanwhile, no one has any toilet paper. What a time to be alive, at least temporarily.

How do you enforce "voluntary" quarantine without filling cities with cops and/or soldiers? You turn to the tracking devices nearly everyone carries. Extreme times/extreme measures and all that, so every bit of location data hoovered up by carriers of phones and/or viruses is now apparently fair game.

It's already happening in the countries we expect it to happen in. China is still being China, except moreso:

In China, SenseTime, a highly valued AI firm, is being deployed in multiple cities in order to identify people with elevated temperatures, as well as those who aren’t wearing face masks. On its website, the company touts its “Smart AI Epidemic Prevention Solutions.” The company calls it a “quick and effective system in screening and detecting individuals with elevated temperature in a crowd.

You don't erect a massive surveillance infrastructure if you don't plan to exploit every bit of it. This new deployment might be one of least nefarious uses of China's massive camera network, but that doesn't make it any less frightening. China's government has given itself a lot of power and every new iteration of its surveillance network shows just how pervasive its surveillance of its own citizens is.

Over in Hong Kong, every new arrival is being tracked from the moment they set foot in the country.

Hong Kong has made it mandatory for all new arrivals to wear an “electronic wristband” that links to a smartphone to provide location-tracking services, so that authorities can be sure they’re observing COVID-19 quarantine requirements.

This sounds very intrusive. But, rest assured, it actually isn't because the government has clearly explained it is not intrusive.

[T]he city-state insists its privacy commissioner has signed off on the idea because it “does not pose privacy concerns.”

Oh. OK. I guess it's not a location tracker because it does not constantly track location, only any "changes in the location." This is the equivalent of a parolee's ankle bracelet, except it's on people's wrists and escapees will be hit with fines rather than jail time. That could change in the future. In fact, it probably will if enough suspected carriers wander around too much. The government will also be making "surprise video calls" to wristband-wearers to verify they're in the places they're supposed to be.

There's no wristband system in Israel. But that's because there's something worse.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has authorized the country’s internal security agency to tap into a vast and previously undisclosed trove of cellphone data to retrace the movements of people who have contracted the coronavirus and identify others who should be quarantined because their paths crossed.

Information harvested for supposed national security reasons is now being used to track non-security threats and everyone they've come in contact with. It's a scary new version of contact chaining that treats everyone as some sort of public health criminal for moving around the country in the proximity of other people. The plan is to sort through the data to find people who have come in contact with known carriers and send them text messages telling them to immediately isolate themselves. They will become the new "targets" and everyone they've come in contact with are the next links in the chain. And so on.

None of this was discussed with the public, who will now be receiving unsolicited texts from their government, which is using data citizens were previously unaware was being collected en masse. The consequences of ignoring the Israeli government are dire: six months in prison and the authorization of police use-of-force to break up any gatherings of ten or more people.

This virus is unusual and unpredictable. Responses from world governments have been just as unusual and unpredictable. But once a new domestic surveillance baseline is established, it's tough to roll all of it back after the virus is contained and treatable.

Filed Under: china, covid-19, hong kong, israel, privacy, surveillance, tracking


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  1. icon
    Hugo S Cunningham (profile), 20 Mar 2020 @ 8:09am

    Re: Re:

    Despite the marginal irritations left over from the Patriot Act, we were a remarkably free society by historical standards. World War II restrictions were far more severe, but were dismantled postwar.


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