According to the report of the Wall Street Journal last week, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have enlisted the data scraping and modeling giant, Palantir, to model the data of the coronavirus outbreak. Palantir would also partner up with the law enforcement and several government security agencies to this enormous task. Palantir alongside Clearview AI, the facial recognition startup which managed to amass billions of high-quality facial images by way of public web scraping, is purportedly in contact with state governments regarding the tracking of people who have been in contact with virus-infected individuals.
Although the proposal may sound like a huge help in the attempt to slow down the pandemic, privacy advocates see more harm than good with it. They are wary that if such measures would indeed be implemented, there will no longer be anywhere to go back to. After all, once governments have bestowed with such power to track the population, who is to say that they will give it back rightfully? Privacy advocates reckon not, and such risk is too much to take.
Countless drastic measures are being introduced worldwide
As per the New York Times, several governments worldwide have been taking increasingly extreme measures to slow down the spread of coronavirus. Many countries have already resorted to various tracking structures that could help the government easily identify individuals who have come in contact with those that are already positive with the virus. While some may still be contemplating such measures, others have already dived deep into such steps.
For example, the South Korean government has started posting distressingly specific location histories of people who have already been tested as positive for the coronavirus this January. Such information included when and where the individuals went for work and whether they were using protective masks in public transportations. More troublingly, where they went to get their massages, where they ate and had fun, and so much more were also publicly disclosed.
To no one’s surprise, the patient data were then used to determine the individuals who have been tracked by the government. Not that long, though, the government of South Korea has seemingly changed their mind with this system, saying that they would make an effort to revise the guidelines for the data-sharing in order to minimize the risks cast upon the patients involved.
South Korea is just one example, as public surveillance-based systems have been garnering high interest around many more countries that are willing to take drastic steps to prevent further coronavirus damage. The EUobserver reported that people undergoing home quarantine in Poland are being required to take geo-located self-pictures using their phone within an allocated 20 minutes upon receiving a corresponding SMS request. And once they do fail to comply with such, they’d be expecting a police squad right by their doorstep immediately.
On the other hand, the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu has approved another surveillance program just recently that utilizes domestic security agency data cache in an attempt to also track down locations of people who are potentially afflicted by the disease. This particular system was once designed to fight off terrorism within the country. However, now, it is being used on the own people it was built to protect.
The United States isn’t too far behind. According to the New York Times, the government is already in talks with Google, Facebook, and several other tech companies that may help them collect aggregated location data coming from the citizen’s mobile devices to track coronavirus.
The threat of public surveillance
Experts all around the world have started expressing concerns regarding the mass surveillance systems being implemented globally. According to them, surveillance of such a vast scale might not just stop after the outbreak is done. They posed the question again: when governments have been given such grand power; who can be sure that they’d easily let it go once the pandemic subsides? There are a lot of other ways location data could be utilized for political gains. A great example of that is the power to track down political opponents as well as their acquaintances.
Privacy advocates do not condemn the effort to slow down the global pandemic. However, they believe that there must be another more viable way to do so.