In recent weeks, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has been taking more interviews than usual, discussing the potential privacy risks that can come along with the technology being used to track down and isolate coronavirus patients. In a new interview with Vice, Snowden details the electronic “contact tracing” that has been implemented by governments in places like China, Taiwan, and South Korea. Very similar contact tracing programs could be on their way to the United States and Europe, according to health officials.
Governments in some of the first countries affected by the outbreak have collected cellphone data as a part of their coronavirus containment strategy, and then used that data to track down and quarantine individuals who have come into contact with known coronavirus patients. Any resident that wants to leave their house is required to download a cellphone app that keeps a record of their health, and their phone’s GPS will be configured to recognize if its owner comes within a certain range of a known coronavirus patient.
If you have one of these apps downloaded on your phone and you come into contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, you will receive a notification or text message letting you know that you have been exposed and the message will instruct you to quarantine in your home for two weeks. If you refuse to comply with the quarantine, the authorities will know, because your cellphone will be set to notify them if you leave a certain perimeter. Leaving home without a phone isn’t an option either, because these apps are also used to gain entry to grocery stores and other businesses.
While the world is facing a unique challenge in containing the coronavirus, Snowden is concerned that governments have ulterior motives for the surveillance systems that they are creating to combat the pandemic.
“As authoritarianism spreads, as emergency laws proliferate, as we sacrifice our rights, we also sacrifice our capability to arrest the slide into a less liberal and less free world. Do you truly believe that when the first wave, this second wave, the 16th wave of the coronavirus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept? No matter how it is being used, what’ is being built is the architecture of oppression,” Snowden told Vice.
These apps are being touted as the way to end the shut down in both Italy and the UK and it appears that officials in the United States are seeking to adopt these methods as well. On Thursday, CDC Director Robert Redfield told NPR that “aggressive contact tracing” of coronavirus patients would be needed for the country to return to normal.
Redfield was selective with his words in the interview, but said that the government was considering the different ways that “modern technology” could help with contact tracing.
“People are looking at all the different modern technology that could be brought to bear to make contact tracing more efficient and effective. Are there more tech-savvy ways to be more comprehensive in contact tracing? Currently these things are under aggressive evaluation,” Redfield said.
Meanwhile, Apple and Google announced a rare partnership to develop contact tracing apps that they expect to be on about 3 billion phones.
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