Google, Apple unleash mass surveillance to halt COVID-19

After over a decade of competing with and suing each other, Apple and Google have suddenly formed an unholy alliance to introduce mass surveillance Chinese-style.

They announced a joint effort on Friday to warn people via smartphone notification — on an opt-in basis — if they’ve come into contact with someone with the coronavirus. They promise not to share users’ location information with government authorities. This would give them power to monitor an estimated three billion people around the world.

Contact tracing is the ‘brilliant’ idea that desperate public health officials and political leaders are promoting as coronavirus paralyzes economic activity worldwide.

They are claiming it will allow government officials to lift shelter-in-place orders and restore normalcy to our everyday lives. There are significant privacy concerns about requiring people to share their location and other personal data with the government.

There is no compelling evidence that contact tracing will work. It may end up creating a false sense of security that encourages people to resume their normal activities, coming into contact with several people a day, and perpetuating the spread of COVID-19.

It may also create unnecessary social conflict and promote discrimination. Why should coronavirus sufferers be targeted and treated like social pariahs? Is that the price society will have to pay these tech companies so we can have our freedom?

“We caution that actions taken to contain spreading of coronavirus must also preserve the right to privacy held by each and every American,” the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, wrote in a letter to President Donald Trump. “Google’s colossal stores of data on daily movements of Americans, coupled with the might of local, state, and federal governments is an alarming prospect.”

Apple and Google have the backing of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, who told NPR Thursday ‘very aggressive’ contact tracing is crucial to returning to normalcy.

Large scale contact tracing will require the deployment of an ‘army’ of healthcare workers and a SWOT team of around 600 has already spearheaded the process.

Redfield said it is the solution to curbing the spread of coronavirus and preventing recurring localized outbreaks.

“It is going to be critical,” he said. “We can’t afford to have multiple community outbreaks that can spiral up into sustained community transmission — so it is going to be very aggressive, what I call ‘block and tackle.'”

 Apple and Google contend that contact tracing will offer maximum public health benefit without sacrificing privacy. Are they seizing on this glorious opportunity to further access our data and break down our privacy walls for their own financial gain? They may not be motivated purely by an altruistic desire to serve society for the greater good. This will set a very dangerous precedent.

Both companies are making unprecedented changes to their mobile operating systems to let devices exchange a private key with nearby smartphones via Bluetooth, logging any time users come in close proximity.

If someone tests positive for COVID-19 and enters that information into an app, 14 days worth of their contacts with other users are sent to a server. If so, a notification pops up letting the user know that someone they have been in contact with has tested positive and more information is provided.

The phones will periodically check if anyone recently came into contact with a user who has reported being infected.

 Don’t other people with whom these individuals may have been in contact have a right to choose whether or not they opt in? There is no way for this process to work unless these companies scoop up large quantities of data from other contacts without their knowledge.

The new technology will work on iPhones running iOS 13 or later and on Android devices running any version of the operating system from 2015’s Marshmallow on.

The companies say they have taken a number of steps to protect user privacy, including:

  • Allowing individual choice whether to use the technology.
  • Not collecting location or other personally identifiable information.
  • Not allowing the actual list of people a user has been in contact with to leave the phone unless desired.
  • Pledging the tool will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management.
  • Not identifying people who test positive to other users, Google or Apple.
  • Retaining the ability to disable the broadcast system on a region-by-region basis when it is no longer needed.

Jennifer Granick, the American Civil Liberties Union’s surveillance and cybersecurity counsel, responded to the upcoming mass surveillance initiative on Friday by bending at the knee. The organization has failed miserably at defending the privacy of Americans from tech companies, in comparison to the aggressive action of countries in the European Union.

“No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to health care, said Granick.

“These systems also can’t be effective if people don’t trust them. People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralized repository. At the same time, we must be realistic that such contact tracing methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.”

“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement.”

 The ACLU claims it “will remain vigilant moving forward to make sure any contact tracing app remains voluntary and decentralized, and used only for public health purposes and only for the duration of this pandemic.”

We know the organization has never adequately defended our privacy rights. The only way to stop this abhorrent overreach of ‘big brother’ is for Americans to loudly and forcefully speak out against this initiative.