Privacy erodes in the name of health and safety: State, fed gov’t kicks up surveillance practices

2 mins read

Not since the Sept. 11 tragedy has privacy protections diminished in the US. 

Google gives smartphone users the option to participate or turn off tracking on their devices in its Google Maps Timeline. If this feature is enabled, every month you receive a report detailing where you’ve been and how many miles you’ve travelled. Now, this app, and others, are being employed to track and trace Covid-19 infections and monitor residents in the time of shelter-in-place mandates.

While smartphones and apps have become key tracking and tracing technologies for agencies across the world, it brings up issues on how much governments should know about movements of its citizens. Mozilla Foundation, the company that created the open-source web browser, Firefox, and long-time privacy advocate, says in its Pledge for a Healthy Internet manifesto that “Individuals’ security and privacy on the internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional,” even in times of crisis.

However, similar to post-Sept 11, infringing on privacy is happening in the public and private sector. During a recent press conference, Colorado’s governor, Jared Polis, mentioned that cell phones were being used to keep tabs on state residents. In another instance, data from the mobile phone locations of spring breakers who traveled to Florida in March was used by geo-spatial data mining company, Tectonix GEO, to track how 5,000 people did not practice social distancing. 

| Read: Google tracks you even you disagree |

From the surface, it presents as a way to protect the safety of the country, which was a similar reason to the dramatic reduction of privacy protection laws after Sept. 11. In 2006, reports revealed that phone company, AT&T, provided its phone records to the National Security Agency. Two years later, congress passed a bill dismissing complaints and lawsuits of the illegal surveillance, thus ushering in legal wire-tapping under the George Bush Administration. 

At the time, an Illinois Senator by the name of Barack Obama agreed. In 2018, that bill was renewed under the Trump Administration for six more years. Initially, Trump rejected the legislature, claiming that government agents used the policy to spy on him. Later he said the program was essential. 

Last month, the Senate revived another bill, the US Freedom Act. This law gives intelligence agencies a lot of wiggle room to carry out warrantless surveillance through telephone records and internet activity. Earlier, it was stymied by a bloc of detractors, but on Thursday, the bill passed.

Added to the reauthorization of spying on US citizens, experts point out the weak security measures in contact tracing apps. After an assessment of app tracers that use either a centralized and decentralized system of registering Covid-19 cases, Firefox Chief Technology Officer Eric Rescorla says both come with high risks of being breached.  While these apps do the work that the NSA cannot perform legally, it opens the doors for more mass hacks just before another presidential election cycle.

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