Virginia has become the first state in the nation to offer for download a contact tracing Apple and Google API app aimed — according to government — at stopping and slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
And so it begins: One of modern government’s cleverest means of tracking and surveilling its people, and all for the good health of the people, to boot.
COVIDWISE, as it’s called, is being pushed by the state’s Department of Health with a promise of unrivaled privacy protections and the dangly diamond-in-the-rough whisper of saving citizens from this terrible virus and getting us all back to some semblance of societal normalcy.
The way it works is it “relies on the exchange of anonymous Bluetooth tokens between devices, with no location data or personal information collected or shared,” to alert when one smartphone carrier who’s tested positive for the coronavirus comes within a few feet of another smartphone carrier, Mac Rumors wrote.
It’s all anonymous. All private. Until it isn’t, that is.
“[Privacy’s] at the core of what we do as an agency,” said Jeff Stover, with the Virginia Department of Health, to WUSA 9.
That’s probably what the Department of Veteran Affairs maintained — before 26.5 million of its accounts were hacked in 2006. Same with the U.S. voter database — before 191 accounts were hacked in 2015. Same with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management — before 21 million or so accounts were hacked, beginning in 2013 through 2015. Same with the Virginia Department of Health Professions — before 8.3 million accounts were hacked in 2009. At least on that last, the governor refused to pay the $10 million ransom to the hackers.
The takeaway is this: Technology comes with no privacy guarantees. Even when it does — there are no guarantees. And those who try to guarantee, are either ignorant or outright lying.
But with contact tracing apps, the risks of hacks aren’t even the biggest privacy threats. The government is.
What starts as voluntary can quickly morph into mandatory. What begins as anonymous can quickly move into not-so-anonymous, and then shared, and then even more not-so-anonymous. It’s not a conspiracy that government collects data on citizens; it’s hardly a leap over logic to acknowledge that this government, during these chaotic coronavirus times, and already guilty of taking scores of unconstitutional crackdown steps under cover of protecting the health of the people — it’s not a leap to see how government could abuse these apps to obtain personal information on citizens. And then act on that information.
“What is disconcerting,” wrote information sciences professor Masooda Bashir and doctoral student Tanusree Sharma, of their analysis of 50 COVID-19 apps in the Google Play store that was published by Nature Medicine, “is that these apps are continuously collecting and processing highly sensitive and personally identifiable information, such as health information, location and direct identifiers (e.g., name, age, email address and voter/national identification). Governments’ use of such tracking technology — and the possibilities for how they might use it after the pandemic — is chilling to many. Notably, surveillance mapping through apps will allow governments to identify people’s travel paths and their entire social networks.”
Privacies protected now don’t guarantee privacies protected in the future. Just as the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic was ever-changing, and still is, so, too, will be the government’s exploitation of contact tracing. Imagine a country where the app alerts not just the smartphone holder, but the nearest medical authorities, of pedestrian contact with a coronavirus case positive — so the medical authorities can spring into speedy high gear to make sure those who came into contact are properly self-quarantining.
Knock, knock. That’s the sound of government pounding on your door.
As Bashir and Sharma wrote — what of the post-COVID-19 era? What of the next virus, and the next, and the next? What of the next national emergency, or medical matter, or health threat, and the next?
All that technology, in the hands of government, surely won’t go to waste. Today’s COVID-19 app tracker is tomorrow’s — fill in the blank. That will change.
The theme, however, remains the same. Today’s COVID1-19 app tracker is government’s technological tool, today, tomorrow and beyond, to control citizens, curtail freedoms, clamp free association. That’s just the natural progression of government powers. And one need only look at the government’s response to COVID-19 to see that truth.
• Cheryl Chumley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @ckchumley. Listen to her podcast “Bold and Blunt” by clicking HERE. And never miss her column; subscribe to her newsletter by clicking HERE.
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