June 26, 2020
Is Your Privacy Worth Your Life?
It’s one of the many false dichotomies of the post-pandemic “new normal”… similar to that old chestnut, “Should we save the economy or save lives?” (Short answer: Yes.)
The privacy-or-your-life challenge stems from governments and companies trying to balance two priorities – keeping the public healthy and protecting personal privacy. A lot of measures that (should) help protect public health are taking a wrecking ball to privacy. And, even worse – some privacy-destroying public health efforts haven’t worked, creating a worst-of-all-worlds scenario in which everyone knows your business, but the curve remains arched and very un-flat…
The state of your health is a very personal thing. But unlike colon cancer or clogged arteries, if you’re infected with the coronavirus, you’re a risk to others. Then, the state of your health becomes an issue of public health.
Over the past few months, governments have tried a lot of different methods to track and prevent the spread of COVID-19. From South Korea to Israel to Italy, they have used a privacy-killing cocktail of mobile-phone location data, CCTV footage, facial recognition, and data from credit-card purchases to track infected people and potential virus-transmission chains.
Well before we understood the downsides of eating bats, a $200 billion industry in the U.S. was built on harvesting, triangulating, and selling data about you… what you buy, where you go, web sites you visit, who you talk to, and how you spend your time. (One data broker says that it has more than 5,000 data points on every American consumer.) And with the pandemic, the sentiment of this industry has been co-opted by governments around the world in the name of keeping us safe from each other’s germs.
But you can give up a little bit of your privacy about as easily as you can get a little bit pregnant… It’s all or none. The problem is the “give them a hand, and they’ll take your arm” mission creep, as the New York Times explained in March…
… ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.
Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.
So far, coronavirus-tracking efforts require the cooperation of the individual – most often, by downloading an app on their phone. In theory, technology could enable governments to identify and notify people who came into contact with others who were infected… who then could be tested and quarantined, (hopefully) breaking the transmission chain.
Singapore (where I live) was one of the early adapters of a contact-tracing app in March. With the app, a phone detects and logs each instance of two phones being close enough to each other for Bluetooth to “see” the other signal.
The government says that the app, TraceTogether, doesn’t collect personal or location data. It offered chummy exhortations to recruit users – “Tell your friends and family; share the app. The more you use it, the better prepared we will be to fight COVID-19,” one government social media channel message commanded.
But even in follow-the-rules Singapore – where people who refuse to wear face masks are front-page news and where crossing the street on red is considered a Hunter S. Thompson-level of rebellion – just 38% of the population downloaded the app. (I have enormous faith and trust in Singapore’s hyper-competent government. And I have ample experience with other people listening in on my life – living in Russia with an American diplomatic passport will do that. But I didn’t download Singapore’s tracing app… Why give them an inch, and invite them to take a foot?)
Experts say that usage of at least 6 out of 10 people in a population is required in order for a contact-tracing app to be effective. And if Singapore can’t even get close to that level, it’s never going to happen in countries (like the U.S.) where just wearing a face mask – the easiest, most obvious, cheapest, lowest-tech, scientifically proven, blazingly obvious way of limiting virus transmission and protecting others and yourself – is considered a political statement, and “mask shaming” people for wearing a face mask is actually a thing.
And in any case, those apps might not help much, as Foreign Policy magazine explained in May…
Tracking apps are an unproven solution that rely heavily on “if only” reasoning: If only everyone would install the app, if only people would carry their phones at all times, if only phones wouldn’t run out of power, if only people wouldn’t turn off Bluetooth, if only tracking apps didn’t interfere with other software. Finally and most importantly: if only the virus would spread in ways that can be detected using the app.
Singapore, Norway, and Australia are at various stages of scrapping or completely overhauling their contact-tracing apps.
Another approach – sometimes used in conjunction with a tracing app – is old-fashioned shoe-leather contact tracing. It involves teams of disease trackers and case workers, sometimes involving representatives with police, health, and intelligence backgrounds, to trace the chain of infection from one person to the next to stem the transmission.
But it’s time-consuming and labor-intensive to get in touch with everyone who a symptomatic person came into contact with. And it relies heavily on memory (you took the metro to where, and what did the person at the other table at Starbucks look like?) and (privacy-killing) cooperation.
Contact tracing makes sense for super-spreader gatherings (say, by getting in touch with everyone who attended a church service where a participant tested positive). And it has a chance of working in a place like Singapore – a small, densely populated country, where there is a small number of cases in the general community. (To get into and leave any public building or office in Singapore – mall, office, store, dentist, acupuncturist – your national ID card is scanned, and your temperature is taken… Anyone with privacy concerns can stay outside and sweat in the tropical humidity.)
But for most situations, contact tracing isn’t the answer. Earlier this week, New York City launched a contact-tracing program “to identify anyone who has come into contact with the hundreds of people who are still testing positive for the virus in the city every day,” the New York Times reported. So far, the program has in part “been limited by a low response rate, scant use of technology, privacy concerns… ” Suspicious New Yorkers aren’t about to tell nosy contact tracers any more than they have to… which is nothing.
However, there’s another option, which might walk the fine line between privacy and public health safety.
Let’s say that today you arrive at the Hong Kong International Airport. You’re issued a disposable wristband that you connect via Bluetooth to an app on your phone. When you get to the apartment (or, if you’re a billionaire, the house – this is Hong Kong, after all) where you’ll be grinding out the required 14-day quarantine, you pace out the perimeter of the property to track the coordinates of your living space to define your scope of movement.
If you leave the premises during the quarantine period (or if you tamper with the wristband… this isn’t something you can leave on your bedside table), your phone will inform the authorities, via the StayHomeSafe app. Then you can expect a fine and/or jail time (or worse).
But if you survive cabin fever and end the quarantine period asymptomatic – that is, you don’t show any symptoms of the coronavirus after two weeks – a text message will release you from your gilded prison. You can cut off the wristband and go climb Victoria Peak and eat Sichuan food. No one will be tracking you… And all that information about your movements in quarantine… well, you were in your apartment, and so what?
Hong Kong’s program is operated by a Canadian company called TraceSafe, which first deployed its wristband and cloud technology to track newborns in hospitals in New Zealand. The company’s CEO, a tech entrepreneur named Wayne Lloyd, thinks that governments (the company is talking with more than 20 of them on different types of pilot projects) are just the start… the first droplets in what will be a very big sneeze of a market of real-time location tracking, which will help us live in a pandemic world.
For example, let’s say you’re at Toronto Wolfpack Rugby League’s Lamport Stadium. You visit the beer garden, hit the bathroom, swing by the merch tent, go to the VIP hospitality area, and do it all again at halftime. The whole time you’re in the stadium, you’re wearing a nifty wristband, and your path is tracked – like one of those Family Circus comic strips that follows little Billy on a dotted-line trajectory as he wanders all over the neighborhood on a mom-dictated “I need this quick” errand – by a very similar bracelet to what you’d get if you were landing in Hong Kong.
The 9,599 other fans (plus ushers, ticket-takers, cleaners, popcorn guys, and everyone else) at the stadium are similarly fitted with a bracelet and are being tracked. The unique paths of every individual, and where and how they overlap and intersect – potentially creating a point of infection transmission – create a mass of data that’s stored in the cloud.
When you leave the stadium, you cut the bracelet off your wrist, and you’re done with it. The data is deleted after a few weeks. (And the good thing is: Who cares if it stays in the cloud forever? Unless the number of trips you made to the beer garden is a privacy concern – in which case, you might have bigger problems.) And that’s the end of it, unless you crossed paths with someone who later became symptomatic… Then you’d get a phone call and your COVID-19 journey would start.
TraceSafe recently signed a deal with the Toronto Wolfpack. If the wristband works at Lampert Stadium, a lot of other event spaces might look to do something similar. For now, this might enable venues that hold sporting events, concerts, amusement parks, and casinos to open back up sooner than they might have. Over the long term, this could be a way to learn to live with COVID-19… and then COVID-20, or whatever’s next.
A number of companies – including software giant Salesforce, which is rolling out a workplace contact-tracing tool and response plan called work.com – are trying to figure out how to make the workplace as safe as possible.
Whether it’s an auto plant or a computer-chip factory or a pharmaceutical production line, if one person falls ill, the entire plant might have to be closed… with serious ramifications for the company and, possibly, for the economy as a whole. (A few months ago, coronavirus infections in meat plants throughout the U.S. sparked meat shortages in some areas. A few months ago, factory shutdowns throughout China pushed back production of new iPhones and much more.)
A wristband – as if you were at the stadium watching the Wolfpack in Toronto – can track the movements of employees on the production floor, the restroom, at the cafeteria, and everywhere else. “Someone might remember who he had lunch with at the cafeteria. But is he going to remember who was sitting at the next table?” Lloyd explains. If an employee tests positive, it’s easy to ring-fence and isolate the people he came into contact with – without closing down the entire plant.
Will employers use this new trove of data to monitor employees – how quickly they work, how long they take to powder their noses, who they spend time with while on the job? Probably. But employers can already read your e-mails and listen to your phone calls and watch you through your monitor… That privacy boat has already been sunk.
In the battle of your privacy or your life… the answer there is, fingers crossed, “yes.”
May you find your way through the chaos.
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
U.S. Sent $1.4 Billion in Aid Payments to Dead People
The Government Accountability Office reported that the government did not consult death records for three batches of payments.
Virus Surges Across U.S., Throwing Reopenings Into Disarray
Newly diagnosed cases of COVID-19 spread soared in hot spots across the U.S., driving city and state officials to consider slowing or reversing reopening plans.
Sweden didn’t impose a lockdown, but its economy is just as bad as its neighbors
It famously didn’t lock down. Bars and restaurants remained open, as did hairdressers and gyms. Yet economic data suggest Sweden didn’t benefit economically from avoiding the lockdown…
‘Too early to call’: why it’s unlikely we’ll have a winner on U.S. election night
Americans are used to the spectacle of election night – anchors on major networks breathlessly analyze and call races and the evening culminates in a late-night speech from victorious candidates… That’s very unlikely to happen this year.
Hard Times in the Big Easy
Fifteen years ago Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now a second storm – COVID-19 – has swept in, its death toll eclipsing that of the hurricane, and many in the Crescent City fear the virus could leave untold devastation in its wake.
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
June 26, 2020