Let's rein in the surveillance as we get COVID under control

We shouldn't trust Big Tech to have our best interests at heart.

I’m looking forward to when we have widespread access to COVID-19 vaccinations throughout the United States, which will surely help limit the spread of the disease and its variants. Right now, most states are still struggling in the wake of holiday season get-togethers and the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of this public health crisis, which could last a while. Vaccines probably won’t be widely available until the end of the summer, and we don’t know how long they’ll give people immunity. In other words, COVID isn’t leaving us anytime soon.

To better track the virus’s spread, improve contact tracing and minimize the extent of outbreaks, the US and some other countries have been using the ubiquitous thing most of us have in our pockets: our mobile phones. Tracking apps seem to be one of many useful tools for keeping tabs on where people with the coronavirus have been, who they might have inadvertently infected, and whether you’ve been exposed. Some researchers have also proposed watching for “sick posts” on social media to track new COVID-19 cases, as has been done in China.

But even though we’re an entire year into the pandemic, with more than one in 12 Americans already infected and nearly half a million dead, there has still been little regulation of how these COVID surveillance tools are deployed and what authorities and companies can do with all the data they collect and transmit. Researchers at the RAND think tank point out that any limits on Apple’s and Google’s apps are merely voluntary, and the companies haven’t disclosed how long the apps would be active, how the data would be stored, or whether we can find out exactly what data has been collected about us, according to their recent report.

Risks of exploiting such surveillance tools became apparent last June when Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington proposed trying to use such data ostensibly for contact tracing Black Lives Matter protesters. If there aren’t protections put in place, it’s easy to imagine surveillance tools being misused or abused. (For example, here in San Diego, camera-equipped “smart streetlights” that were supposed to be for monitoring traffic and air quality ended up becoming a surveillance tool exclusively for police, who used them to investigate protesters calling for police reform.)

In any case, these COVID surveillance tools are giving us a new version of a common debate. Nobody wants to allow tech companies or government agencies to harvest our private data, but we need to do our part to contain the pandemic and keep as many people as safe as possible. This could be one of those necessary sacrifices we make. But then how should officials resolve this contentious balance between battling a pandemic whose spread has turned out to be tough to stop versus people’s free speech and privacy rights? Regardless of how widely contact tracing apps are deployed by the time we begin returning to “normal,” whatever that it is, the rest of the winter and spring are surely a critical time to monitor COVID infections.

COVID likely will eventually wind down, even if new variants arise and even if we need new vaccines later when these wear off. Well before then Congress and state authorities should try to set clear, enforceable rules for winding down the surveillance too and ensuring that people’s health and location data aren’t stored longer than necessary or sold to other companies.

As this recent New York Times piece by Shushana Zuboff points out, social media and other tech companies have been surveilling and monetizing our personal lives for years. Just as we shouldn’t trust social media companies to monitor hate speech and misinformation on their own — which they haven’t done a good job with, with inconsistently applied rules and with almost no transparency or independent oversight — we shouldn’t trust them to make public health decisions by themselves either. We might agree with Facebook’s and Twitter’s decisions to suspend Donald Trump’s accounts and Instagram’s choice to bump Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but it makes me uncomfortable that a few corporate executives decided these things unilaterally and with no accountability to the public. The ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation have taken a similar stance on these issues.

As in these cases, let’s push for transparency and clear rules with COVID tracking and for that surveillance to come with a specific end date later this year. Other countries have exploited the pandemic to expand surveillance powers and violate privacy rights, and that happened in the US following the September 11 attacks 20 years ago, but we shouldn’t let it happen again.

More about me: I'm an astrophysicist turned science writer and freelance journalist based in San Diego. You can find me at my website, raminskibba.net, and on Twitter @raminskibba. I'm also former president of the San Diego Science Writers Association (SANDSWA) and on the board of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), though the opinions I express are mine alone. You’re welcome to share this newsletter, and if you like what you’ve been writing or want to support my work, please consider a paid subscription. Thanks!