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Is Contact Tracing a Simple Answer to COVID Lockdowns?

An engineering professor at the University of Austin asks us to look at the costs and benefits

High tech contact tracing, says Karl D. Stephan (right), is a geek’s dream:

A contact-tracing app is designed to follow you around like a 24-hour detective, noticing everybody you’ve been within Bluetooth range of. Bluetooth is a short-range communications system that virtually all mobile phones have, and its typical range is about six feet (two meters), which is conveniently just the same as the social-distancing space we are supposed to be keeping to avoid Covid-19 nowadays.

If anyone you’ve been near subsequently tests positive for Covid-19, this fact is communicated via the app to everyone who has come within proximity to that infected person in the last week or two, and they know to quarantine themselves and get tested too.

Karl D. Stephan, “Is there a contact-tracing app in your future? ” at MercatorNet

It would also track your physical location so that people without cell phones can be warned. But does it make any difference?

Countries such as South Korea which have implemented extensive contact tracing by non-automated means have found that it greatly reduced the need for blanket restrictions on movement, such as the US and many other countries are enduring right now. So worldwide, a number of countries are developing contact-tracing apps. The BBC reports that Australia and Denmark hope to roll theirs out within two weeks, and Germany won’t be far behind.

Karl D. Stephan, “Is there a contact-tracing app in your future? ” at MercatorNet

So, ironically, people would be less restricted (at least for now) if the government always knew where they were and with whom. But going forward?

I’m no prophet, and I can’t tell whether contact-tracing apps will get very far (Singapore has had less than 25% participation in their voluntary rollout, which makes it almost useless), or will become the de-facto passport to ordinary life again. Probably what will happen is somewhere in between.

Karl D. Stephan, “Is there a contact-tracing app in your future? ” at MercatorNet

Somewhere in between? All crises end eventually. And our needs change. The ways we surrender our privacy for safety can come back to haunt us as entrenched systems.

Consider censorship in wartime. Policies that protect us during a crisis, if not officially dropped, may linger because they serve other needs or purposes. Many public figures, for example, would have been happier in recent years without a legal #MeToo movement. But, as it happens, no preceding crisis had justified the introduction of censorship. So the public figures had to get used to #MeToo.

Invasive tracking apps can be credited with protecting people from COVID-19 while allowing them to work and shop. But once the crisis and panic are over, we need to look at the ways in which legal invasions of privacy have simply crept up on us. Consider these, for example:

  • Big corporations like Google give in to the temptation to grab vast troves of health data that come their way to use in various projects. One ad executive quit the industry because he was shocked at the indifference to invasions of privacy.
  • It’s worse in places where neither corporations nor governments have much to fear. Consider Google’s involvement with censorship in China, over which a senior Google scientist quit in 2018 (“contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”). Or China’s AI aid package for Africa, which includes mass surveillance technology.

Mass surveillance is already spooky in China and it includes surveillance of journalists via a compulsory app. Constant high tech surveillance figures largely in the persecution of Chinese Christians and Muslims. A totalitarian state is an information society only in the sense that the government has all the information, without any obligation to share.

  • But the problem is often close to home. We rely on systems to protect our privacy and keep us anonymous. But our anonymity may be an illusion. Anonymized data can easily be “deanonymized.” In a classic study, credit card shoppers could be identified from only four pieces of other data with 90% accuracy. We talk about ourselves so much online that a few leaked pieces may not be hard to find. “White hat” hackers (who hack the data in order to find ways to prevent the bad guys from doing so) say that current systems are disturbingly easy to break into. Our phones relay data about us to people we know nothing about and sell information about us.

Surprisingly, perhaps, in the age of the helicopter parent, many parents post a great deal of information about their kids online. They may not realize that an online diary raises the risks of identity theft. If a demand for privacy grows, perhaps in the wake of a scandal, we may realize we have given away way too much already.

The conventional science fiction fear of a superintelligent AI taking over the planet and ridding it of pesky humans distracts our attention from a much more realistic threat: Artificial intelligence (AI) makes both government and corporate surveillance much easier, cheaper, and more useful — whether it is in average citizens’ interests or not. If we are lucky, this will be the decade when we address the implications of that fact.


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Is Contact Tracing a Simple Answer to COVID Lockdowns?