This story is part of a series on the possible impacts of Apple and Google’s contact-tracing technology. You can read the others here.
Apple and Google announced a partnership last week to track the spread of the coronavirus using “contact tracing” software. The ambitious effort harnesses Bluetooth technology and smartphones to alert someone if they’ve been near an infected individual.
Though Apple and Google have promised the feature will be “opt-in,” in practice, businesses could require that people use it. Civil liberties advocates are already considering the consequences of what is essentially a surveillance tool.
Just as minorities have been disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus — Black Americans are dying at drastically higher rates — these communities may also be harmed by the significant privacy implications of contact tracing tools.
The long-standing effects of such technology could be something akin to the domestic surveillance programs that emerged after the September 11 attacks and persist today, experts say. Under the Patriot Act, a sweeping set of reforms that allowed the United States government to spy on regular Americans, policing powers were expanded at the expense of personal privacy. The normalization of surveillance during a pandemic, even in the form of mobile contact tracing, could have unintended societal effects. One could imagine cases of profiling if such data allows communities experiencing an outbreak to be identified, for example.
Contact tracing tools could also be the start of a slippery slope toward further surveillance measures that uniquely impact poor people — individuals already subject to large amounts of data collection through public-benefits and welfare programs, and therefore more easily targeted by data-driven surveillance. “Low-income communities are among the most surveilled communities in America,” wrote Kaveh Waddell in The Atlantic. Immigrants at the U.S. border have also been forced to surrender their most private data — their DNA.
Private employers may force workers to use contact tracing apps as a company safety measure, building on announcements from Amazon and Walmart to screen the temperature of some employees. In this way, too, marginalized communities would be disproportionately impacted by the surveillance. Black Americans are overrepresented in “nine of the ten lowest-paid, high-contact essential services,” according to a recent McKinsey report.
“My fear is that [the coronavirus] will be used as an excuse to expand the reach of surveillance beyond its initial purposes,” said Margaret Hu, a cyber-surveillance researcher and law professor at Washington and Lee University.
Apple and Google have promised information will be anonymized and decentralized, and that unlike GPS-enabled systems, location data won’t be collected. Instead, randomized beacons — or unique keys — will be broadcast and logged by people’s devices. If someone is diagnosed with Covid-19 and submits that information to the app, people they’ve recently crossed paths with can be notified.
Come May, APIs released by the companies will be available to public health authorities who can develop contact tracing apps for iOS and Android systems, which run on nearly every phone in the world. In a second phase of the proposed plan, Apple and Google will eventually bake this feature into their underlying platforms. While it’s not entirely clear what this will result in, presumably it means that some contract tracing functionality will be available to users without downloading an additional app.
Some people fear Apple and Google could eventually allow contact tracing data to be used for purposes outside the scope of monitoring Covid-19 exposure — to single out the coronavirus “hot zones,” for instance. “When and if society decides that this sort of surveillance is acceptable (and, critically, builds up the other components — like testing — of an effective response) the technology will be ready,” writes technology analyst Ben Thompson.
Surveillance that is normalized during times of crisis tends to persist even after the event has passed. In 2002, for instance, President George W. Bush enacted the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), or Muslim registry, which required thousands of noncitizens from primarily Muslim-majority countries to submit biometric data, undergo interrogation, and regularly consult with immigration officials. The system was allegedly created as an anti-terrorism measure, but it sowed fear among Muslim communities. While it was eventually dismantled in 2016 by President Obama ahead of President Trump’s inauguration, the Trump administration has suggested a similar program using NSEERS as a framework.
“Do those powers have a shelf life limit? Will they end when the pandemic ends? The war on terror has not ended,” said Paromita Shah, executive director of Just Futures Law, a grassroots organization that advocates against the criminalization and deportation of immigrants.
Shah is even worried about data that remains solely within the custody of health officials. Apple and Google are letting governments decide who qualifies as a “public health authority” and can, therefore, develop a contact tracing app. According to TechCrunch, in a recent press call, Apple said that app data would be processed on a user’s device but “‘relayed’ through servers run by the health organizations across the world.”
“The tech giants said that because the data is decentralized, it’s far more difficult for governments to conduct surveillance,” TechCrunch reported. More difficult may not mean impossible, of course, nor is it assured that this data will be unhackable.
Meanwhile, the line between public and private services has become increasingly porous amid the crisis. Palantir, for example, the data-mining company best known for tracking undocumented immigrants for ICE, is now assisting the United Kingdom’s National Health Service in modeling the potential spread of the coronavirus.
“Governments around the world are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers intended to contain the virus’ spread, often in partnership with corporations that hold vast stores of consumers’ personal data,” warned the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy nonprofit group.
The potential public health benefits of contact tracing are obvious. If deployed through software updates, and the system reaches critical mass, it may prove more useful than similar programs in countries like Singapore where only one in six people opted in. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and White House advisor, put it to Vanity Fair on Wednesday, “from a pure public health standpoint, it absolutely makes sense.” But even Fauci, who said he had not discussed contact tracing with Google and Apple, acknowledged that such a program has a cost: “Boy, I gotta tell you the civil liberties-type pushback on that would be considerable,” he told the magazine.
In the absence of a meaningful federal response to the pandemic, Silicon Valley is filling a power vacuum with privatized solutions to a public health crisis. And as we interrogate the validity of programs such as mobile contact tracing, we shouldn’t ignore their capacity to become permanent fixtures of a surveillance apparatus.
“This isn’t to say that I’m not about making sure that everyone is safe and healthy and has access to good medical care,” Shah said of technological health tools. “But we know these inequities exist, and yet we think the data is going to bring us to a different place?”