The West Is One Real Crisis Away From a Skynet-Style Surrender of Privacy

In a 2015 video, Microsoft's Joseph Sirosh described the advantages of wiring up a herd of cows to the cloud application via a motion sensor. One of the farmer's problems is determining when a cow is in estrous so it can be artificially inseminated during the short period it is fertile. Motion sensors can pick up the abnormal restlessness of cows in heat with 95% accuracy, leading to immense benefits for the Japanese farmers who implemented the system of connected cows.

The Chinese Communist Party used the same system to inform and guide its quarantine during the recent Covid-19 outbreak: "China used locational and other data from hundreds of millions of smartphones to contain the spread of Covid-19, according to Chinese sources familiar with the program."

In addition to draconian quarantine procedures, which kept more than 150 million Chinese in place at the February peak of the coronavirus epidemic, China used sophisticated computational methods on a scale never attempted in the West. ...

Chinese government algorithms can estimate the probability that a given neighborhood or even an individual has exposure to Covid-19 by matching the location of smartphones to known locations of infected individuals or groups. The authorities use this information to use limited medical resources more efficiently by, for example, directing tests for the virus to high-risk subjects identified by the artificial intelligence algorithm.

All smartphones with enabled GPS give telecom providers a precise record of the user’s itinerary. Smartphone users in the United States and Europe can access their own data, but privacy laws prevent the government from collecting this data. China has no such privacy constraints.

Without Western limits, the Chinese Communist Party treated hundreds of millions like a herd of cows. Any doubt that a similar technological capability exists in the West is dispelled by Taiwan.  The island nation also managed its population similarly.

Taiwan integrated its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to begin the creation of big data for analytics. That allowed them case identification by generating real-time alerts during a clinical visit based on travel history and clinical symptoms.

Taipei also used Quick Response (QR) code scanning and online reporting of travel history and health symptoms to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight origin and travel history in the last 14 days. People who had not traveled to high-risk areas were sent a health declaration border pass via SMS for faster immigration clearance; those who had traveled to high-risk areas were quarantined at home and tracked through their mobile phones to ensure that they stayed home during the incubation period.

As the outbreak spreads in the West, some will demand the creation of an equivalent system -- in the interests of public health, of course. It is here where the absence of public policy treating private data as property and speech will be most felt. Google is already able to provide exactly the same information the Chinese Communist Party uses pursuant to a request from law enforcement.

The new orders, sometimes called “geofence” warrants, specify an area and a time period, and Google gathers information from Sensorvault about the devices that were there. It labels them with anonymous ID numbers, and detectives look at locations and movement patterns to see if any appear relevant to the crime. Once they narrow the field to a few devices they think belong to suspects or witnesses, Google reveals the users’ names and other information. ...

In a statement, Richard Salgado, Google’s director of law enforcement and information security, said that the company tried to “vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement.” He added that it handed over identifying information only “where legally required.”

When a deadly pathogen is on the loose, might not Google be plausibly required to identify Patient Zero's contacts? Should this prove problematic, many people might still voluntarily opt to be connected cows. Fitness trackers, for example, may provide early warning of the onset of coronavirus-type symptoms. A journal article titled "Harnessing wearable device data to improve state-level real-time surveillance of influenza-like illness in the USA: a population-based study" says:

Acute infections can cause an individual to have an elevated resting heart rate (RHR) and change their routine daily activities due to the physiological response to the inflammatory insult. Consequently, we aimed to evaluate if population trends of seasonal respiratory infections, such as influenza, could be identified through wearable sensors that collect RHR and sleep data.

We obtained de-identified sensor data from 200 000 individuals who used a Fitbit wearable device from March 1, 2016, to March 1, 2018, in the USA. ... We identified 47 249 users in the top five states who wore a Fitbit consistently during the study period, including more than 13·3 million total RHR and sleep measures. We found the Fitbit data significantly improved ILI predictions in all five states ...

Not a few would choose to be tracked. One way or the other, it seems only a matter of time till we're all connected cows. The failure to create modes of user-controlled data is the greatest single political failure today. Law and politics are the only remaining bulwark of privacy. The technical battle is over. The West is only one real crisis away from a voluntary surrender of privacy.  If the virus doesn't get us, Skynet, in some sense, will.

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