U.S. citizens deserve to know if their government is using cellphone data to track COVID-19

Governments using smartphone data to enforce quarantine sets a troubling precedent

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Kārlis Dambrāns/All Creative Commons/Flickr

By Lily Robinson, Collegian Columnist

“Allow ‘Google Maps’ to access your location?”

Insert the name of any number of apps and it is a question every smartphone user has answered on numerous occasions. It makes sense for GPS, review services and arguably even social media apps to track a user’s location, but most Americans don’t know the extent to which they are being tracked. With the COVID-19 pandemic turning our world on end, privacy is an issue that deserves more attention than it’s currently getting.

In recent weeks, governments around the world have been scrambling to find ways to use technology to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The idea is that if a government can keep track of where people are and who comes into contact with who, it can more effectively enforce quarantining measures and allow those who are not likely to be infected to operate more freely.

Luckily for them, 3.5 billion people are walking around with personal tracking devices and have even given permission for these devices to collect and store their data. The culprit, of course, is the smartphone.

Cellphone apps track users’ movements to provide services and sell information to advertisers who want to provide personalized ads. In a comprehensive study of cellphone tracking practices, the New York Times declared that anyone with access to location data collected by mobile apps could “see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor.”

If the New York Times was writing that now, it might be reasonable to include where you have coughed.

This is the type of information that tech companies like Facebook, Google, AT&T and Verizon have at their fingertips. They are free to collect it, use it and sell it as they like. We all consented, didn’t we?

It turns out these companies can also choose to share their data with the government, and many are now making that choice.

The Washington Post has been following government discussion about partnering with tech companies to track and curb the spread of the coronavirus. The idea seems to be to collect data in aggregate to analyze patterns of behavior, not to track and target individuals. The reports speak in broad terms, though, and nobody seems willing to put their name behind a statement.

In a March 17 article, the Post relied on anonymous sources to explain the U.S. government is involved in “active talks” with many tech companies regarding the collection of anonymous, aggregated data but they would not be creating a government database with this data. Many of the parties involved in the discussions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Verizon, have declined to comment. Google was willing only to say that they hadn’t yet, but were considering sharing data with the U.S. government.

The U.S. is actually behind the trend. Many other countries have already been tracking their citizens and some of the measures being taken are a gross breach of privacy and personal freedoms.

China is requiring citizens to download a cellphone software, Alipay Health Code, that tracks their movement and issues a status of green, yellow or red that can be seen by law enforcement and which dictates where people are allowed to go.

Israel, where violating quarantine can lead to arrest, has approved measures typically used to fight terrorism that allow the government to track cell phones and collect data, the only clear restriction being that the data must be deleted after 30 days.

One of the most disturbing systems is Taiwan’s “electronic fence.” The Taiwanese government tracks the phones of those subjected to quarantine to ensure they are not violating mandatory measures. If the phone is turned off, police may be notified and the phone’s user is called a few times throughout the day to ensure the device has not been left behind.

The question now seems to be not whether the U.S. government will use cellphone data to track the spread of the coronavirus, but how invasive the measures they choose will be.

So far, proposals have been careful not to tread too heavily on democratic values. On Friday, the Boston Globe reported that Apple and Google will be partnering to create a voluntary tracking system to enable awareness of the possibility of having come in contact with the virus. Users who become infected with the coronavirus could then anonymously enter that information and those who have been in close proximity to them would be alerted.

This partnership is a private one, but since these are two of the companies that have been involved in the government’s discussions about coronavirus tracking, it is not hard to imagine a government system that either uses or is based on their model.

What is most troubling at this point is that the American people are not being kept informed. We have no idea if the government’s plans look like those of Apple and Google — an opt-in service — or like the draconian models that foreign nations are putting into place. The choice is being made above our heads, an exclusive business deal between the corporate tech bigwigs that harvest our data and the politicians who need that data to exercise control.

These are concerns that even some state level politicians are raising. In mid-March, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts submitted a request for answers to chief technology officer Michael Kratsios. The request posed six questions that would increase transparency on the issue. They are the most basic inquiries into collaboration, intent and scope, information that cannot be reasonably withheld from the public. Markey expected a response by March 26. That date passed two weeks ago and no response has been publicly issued.

Yes, the American people want protection from COVID-19, but how badly? How much freedom are we willing to surrender, how vulnerable are we willing to make ourselves to a government that thinks it is acceptable to cover the ears of the public while politicians discuss grown-up topics behind closed doors?

This, we must remember, is the same government that took advantage of the national tragedy that was 9/11, using the resulting sense of insecurity as an opportunity to spy on its citizens, store their personal data, and prosecute the man who eventually called them out on it.

Americans deserve to know the methods behind the protections we reap. We deserve to know how our information is being used and who is watching us. We cannot be expected to sit quietly in our homes and let the government lead us around on leashes like lap dogs who have traded autonomy for a life of being cared for. We are a highly-educated democracy and we deserve to be part of the conversation. That the government is leaving us out suggests that its plans are unacceptable, so, let’s stop accepting them.

Lily Robinson is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].