The “right of privacy” is not an enumerated right in the Constitution, but for decades, it has been ruled an “implied right.”
As the surveillance state grew in size and technological capability, that “right to be left alone” referred to by Justice Brandeis continued to shrink. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to erase it completely. Companies that currently hold the keys to the kingdom on our personal data are sitting down with the government to figure out ways to use their massive capabilities to assist Washington in combating the outbreak.
U.S. government officials are currently in discussion with a number of tech companies, including Facebook and Google, around how data from cell phones might provide methods for combatting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Washington Post report. The talks also include health experts tracking the pandemic and its transmission, and one possible way in which said data could be useful is through aggregated, anonymized location data, per the report’s sources.
The capability is certainly there.
Earlier this week, an open letter co-signed by a lengthy list of epidemiologists, excecutives, physicians and academics also sought to outline what tech companies could contribute to the ongoing effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the measures suggested (directed at mobile OS providers Apple and Google specifically) is an “opt-in, privacy preserving OS feature to support contact tracing” for individuals who might have been exposed to someone with the virus.
Would such information be useful? Allowing the CDC to precisely track COVID-19 exposure would let them nip outbreaks in the bud, channel resources to affected areas, and slow down the spread of the virus. It would save countless lives and help the U.S. recover from the pandemic more quickly.
It would also hand the federal government the most powerful existing means to track our movements.
Even though it would be anonymous, some of what the government would be capable of doing is problematic.
The reported plan comes after several meetings between tech industry leaders and White House officials in the past week as the US scrambles to mobilize the private sector to help fight the spread of COVID-19. While the project raises red flags to privacy advocates, executives involved in the talks told The Washington Post that the data would be aggregated and anonymized and would not enable the government to follow specific individuals’ movements.
The problem is, law enforcement agencies could combine the anonymous data with other tools to spy on Americans. There are also questions about just how “anonymous” the data would actually be.
Not to be paranoid about it, but handing the government this powerful tool can never be taken back. It’s like many of the powers that local and state governments are exercising in the name of fighting the pandemic. Government was not set up to lose power it exercises. Neither does it exist to voluntarily relinquish an ability to keep tabs on its citizens.
What will be the ultimate cost to our liberties to fight this pandemic?