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…