Possible Surveillance Plans in a Post-COVID-19 World

created Apr 10, 2020 - updated May 4, 2020

Well, not really in a post-Covid-19 world. This tech will apply in the current Covid-19 world. If governments love the tech, then it might continue for other reasons.

A vaccine may not be available until some time in 2021. It's possible that "normal" behaviors won't return until 2022. Until then, if we want to reopen businesses and events and try to bring some normalcy back into our lives, we may be forced surrender more of our privacy to the government.

One or more "reopen" plans include some kind of data gathering mobile app that gets installed on users' smartphones. What about the many U.S. residents who do not own a smartphone?

I still use an old iPhone 5C that I obtained in the summer of 2014. It came with iOS v7.x. I have updated the operating system only once. My "smart" phone runs iOS v8.x. It's likely that a new native app released in 2020 for iOS won't work on my phone. Would I be forced to upgrade to new phone or else I could be denied health benefits? How draconian can this be?

And in 2021 or 2022, will this surveillance app go away? Doubtful. When government gets a taste of anything that's advertised as temporary, then it's unlikely that it ever disappears. We have seen temporary taxes in Toledo that have existed for 13 to 38 years. For governments, the word "temporary" is synonymous with "permanent."

I need to upgrade to a more secure cell phone. The Gekko Phone. I doubt that the COVID-19 monitoring app could be installed on this phone.

Excerpts from the Vox article:

The AEI, CAP, and Harvard plans aren’t identical, but they’re similar. All of them feature a period of national lockdown — in which extreme social distancing is deployed to “flatten the curve” and health and testing capacity is surged to “raise the line.” That’s phase one. Phase two triggers after a set period (45 days for CAP, three months for Harvard) or, in the AEI plan, after 14 days of falling cases and a series of health supply markers.

All of them then imagine a phase two, which relaxes — but does not end — social distancing while implementing testing and surveillance on a mass scale. This is where you must begin imagining the almost unimaginable.

The CAP and Harvard plans both foresee a digital pandemic surveillance state in which virtually every American downloads an app to their phone that geotracks their movements, so if they come into contact with anyone who later is found to have Covid-19, they can be alerted and a period of social quarantine can begin. Similarly, people would scan QR codes when boarding mass transit or entering other high-risk public areas. And GPS tracking could be used to enforce quarantine on those who test positive with the disease, as is being done in Taiwan.

To state the obvious: The technological and political obstacles are massive. While similar efforts have borne fruit in Singapore and South Korea, the US is a very different country, with a more mistrustful, individualistic culture. Already, polling shows that 70 percent of Republicans, and 46 percent of Democrats, strongly oppose using cellphone data to enforce quarantine orders.

The CAP plan tries to answer these concerns, but in trying to imagine an answer, it shows the difficulty of the task. It’s worth quoting the CAP proposal at length:

The entity that hosts the data must be a trusted, nonprofit organization—not private technology companies or the federal government. The app could be developed for a purely public health nonprofit entity such as the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO)—an organization that represents state health officials—which would host the data. Congress or foundations could provide funding to develop and operate the technology. States licensing the app could provide ongoing operational funding to ASTHO, provided states receive federal funding for this purpose.

As a condition of receiving a COVID-19 test in the future, individuals may be required to download the app, which would include their test result. For others, the app would be voluntary, although the vast majority of people could be expected to download it to see if there are cases in their neighborhood or near their workplace.

Again, not every person owns a smartphone, or they don't own a modern smartphone.

Ezra asks:

Are we really going to deny tests to anyone who refuses to download the surveillance app? And what about communities with less digital savvy?

The article continues:

The alternative to mass surveillance is mass testing. Romer’s proposal is to deploy testing on a scale no one else is contemplating — 22 million tests per day — so that the entire country is being tested every 14 days, and anyone who tests positive can be quickly quarantined. He shows, in a series of useful simulations, that even if the test has a high false-negative rate, the retesting is sufficient to keep the virus contained, and thus the country can return to normalcy rapidly. Of the various plans, this one seems likeliest to permit a true and rapid economic recovery.

But it is hard to imagine a testing effort of this scale, too. So far, America is struggling to get into the millions of tests per week. This plan requires tens of millions per day. Most experts I’ve spoken to doubt that’s realistic anytime soon, though some believe it’s possible, eventually.

About the mass testing, Ezra wonders:

But even if those constraints could be overcome, how are these 22 million daily tests going to be administered? By whom? How do we enforce compliance? If you refuse to get tested, are you fined? Jailed? Cut off from government benefits? Would the Supreme Court consider a proposal like this constitutional?


The AEI proposal is the closest thing to a middle path between these plans. It’s more testing, but nothing approaching Romer’s hopes. It’s more contact tracing, but it doesn’t envision an IT-driven panopticon. But precisely for that reason, what it’s really describing is a yo-yo between extreme lockdown and lighter forms of social distancing, continuing until a vaccine is reached.

This, too, requires some imagination. Will governors who’ve finally, at great effort, reopened parts of their economies really keep throwing them back into lockdown every time ICUs begin to fill?

And even if the political hurdles could be cleared, it’s obvious, reading the AEI proposal, that there’ll be no “V-shaped recovery” of the economy.

Who in the hell is expected a V-shaped economic recovery. It will probably be more like a checkmark on its side. The steep decline on the left and a long, slow incline on the right. Maybe in two or three years we return to what we had in early February 2020.

Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner who helped craft the plan, says he thinks something like 80 percent of the economy will return — that may sound like a lot, but it’s an economic collapse of Great Depression proportions.

My point isn’t to criticize these plans when I have nothing better to offer. Indeed, my point isn’t to criticize them at all. It’s simply to note that these aren’t plans for returning to anything even approaching normal. They either envision life under a surveillance and testing state of dystopian (but perhaps necessary!) proportions, or they envision a long period of economic and public health pain, as we wrestle the disease down only to see it roar back, as seems to be happening in Singapore.


Ezra's article mentioned "contact tracing." New terms and phrases are entering our lexicon.

About that last one:

Apple and Google on Friday announced a joint effort to notify people via smartphone — on an opt-in basis — if they've come into contact with someone with the coronavirus, without having to share users' location information with government authorities.

Why it matters: Contract tracing is seen as a key means for allowing society to reopen from shelter-in-place orders, but there have been significant privacy concerns about requiring people to share their location and other personal data with the government.

In mid-May, the companies will update their operating system to support the contact-sharing technique and allow for contact-tracing apps

In the coming months, a further operating system update will allow the system to work with out needing a specific app.

An operating system feature. Interesting. I wonder if the two companies will make the OS change a forced update.

It's unlikely, that Apple will make an OS update for iOS 8.x.

How it works:

Google and Apple are both making changes to their mobile operating systems to let devices exchange a private key with nearby smartphones via Bluetooth, logging any time users come in close proximity.

If someone tests positive for COVID-19 and enters that information into an app, 14 days worth of their contacts with other users are sent to a server.

Phones periodically check if any recently encountered user has reported being infected. If so, a notification pops up letting the user know that someone they have been in contact with has tested positive and more information is provided.

And what about privacy?

The companies say they have taken a number of steps to protect user privacy, including:

Allowing individual choice whether to use the technology.

Pledging the tool will only be used for contact tracing by public health authorities for COVID-19 pandemic management.

Not identifying people who test positive to other users, Google or Apple.

Retaining the ability to disable the broadcast system on a region-by-region basis when it is no longer needed.

The bottom line: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield, echoing other public health officials from around the globe, told NPR Thursday that contact tracing is vital to curbing the spread of the coronavirus and preventing recurring localized outbreaks.



Spring 2020 Electronic Frontier Foundation posts:


Designed with data security and privacy protection at its heart, MIT Private Kit is the next generation of secure location logging

Location logs provide time-stamped records of where you’ve been. By logging your location, researchers can explore exciting new opportunities in personal wellbeing, finance, environmental science, and other areas.

Private Kit’s trail generator logs your device’s location once every five minutes and stores 28 days of data in under 100KB of space – less space than a single picture. But what is truly exciting about Private Kit is its privacy protection.

Data never leaves your device without your consent

The location log generated by Private Kit cannot be accessed from outside the user’s device. Data transfer occurs only if the user chooses to share it with the researcher using a QR code. This means when you use Private Kit, you are in charge.

Apr 15, 2020

apnews.com - Would you give up health or location data to return to work?

Apr 24, 2020

"Showdown looms between Silicon Valley, U.S. states over contact tracing apps"



May 4, 2020

"Swiss soldiers fight COVID-19 armed with Bluetooth app"


May 5, 2020

"Apple, Google ban location tracking in apps using their contact-tracing system (reuters.com)"


https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23073000 - nearly 500 comments