President Trump on Friday signed the largest relief bill in US history, a $2 trillion lifeline to businesses, hospitals, and workers hit hard by the explosive spread of the coronavirus. More than 160,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus, according to the John Hopkins Coronaviurus resource center, more than any other country. But some civil liberties advocates and government watchdogs worry that the measure could enable new types of surveillance of Americans, without adequate privacy safeguards. They fear that emergency provisions could become routine over time.
In addition to payments to workers, the bill provides $150 billion for public health, including $4.3 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The money is allocated for increased testing, desperately needed protective equipment for doctors and nurses, and new preventive measures. This includes $500 million for a “public health surveillance and data collection system” meant to track the spread of the virus. Other countries use similar data to detect disease hot spots, decide where to allocate resources, and enforce quarantines or lockdowns.
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“We’ve already seen a bunch of countries embrace the idea of monitoring, be it [through] cell phones [or] social media,” says Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, DC, nonprofit. The stimulus bill includes provisions that restrict some government spending, but when it comes to surveillance, “there’s really not that many.”
Other countries are leaning on tech companies to provide monitoring tools to slow the virus’ spread and enforce lockdowns. In the UK, the National Health Service is partnering with tech giants Microsoft, Amazon, and Palantir to use emergency call data to predict where ventilators may be needed. In China and Spain, location data is used to flag gathering spots where drones tell people to spread out. These are preventive health measures, but have potential for state overreach.
The concerns reflect the tension between tracking people’s movements to reduce the disease’s spread and expectations of personal privacy. “I don’t predict [relief money] will be used to start building up blue light cameras or buying drones, but I could definitely see it being used to build out infrastructure for things like location tracking, cell phone tracking tools, [or] social media monitoring tools,” Laperruque says.
The White House has reportedly approached several technology companies about harnessing user data as a means of tracking the spread of the virus. Google and Facebook dismissed these reports, but grant money from the relief bill could still go to companies with the same aims: tracking people as a proxy for the virus. Legal scholars say the final version focuses on providing money to strengthen local and state responses, with a heightened focus on data collection and surveillance.
Just hours after the Senate approved the bill on Wednesday, Trump sent new coronavirus guidelines to every US governor. The new guidelines ask governors to increase testing and begin rating their respective counties according to risk of infection: low, medium, or high. The relief bill is part of a new phase of response to the pandemic: increasing testing, using that data to track the virus’s spread, rating areas on risk, and finally allocating resources and increasing measures like lockdowns, if necessary.
Information and data collection are vital parts of the plan. The CDC will issue grants to carry out a number of tasks, many of which could be handled by technology companies: real-time updates on the spread of the virus, community messaging via social media, identifying and counteracting misinformation, assessing travelers’ risk of exposure, and predictive modeling of the future spread of the virus.
“This new information will drive the next phase in our war against this invisible enemy,” Trump wrote to the governors.
Technology is indispensable in a pandemic, but rushing to use untested algorithms can be dangerous. Sean McDonald is a digital-governance researcher at Duke University who studied the use of location data in fighting the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia. State health organizations shared information from cell phones, including location data, with international aid groups without user consent, rules governing its use, or a plan to ensure anonymized data stayed anonymous. (Research has long suggested anonymized location data can still identify people). McDonald warns that similar problems could crop up in the US.
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“We have a lot of people with good intentions,” McDonald says, referring to tech companies volunteering their services. But he says the projects are experimental, and their outcomes could be “really dangerous or unjustified.”
One problem, McDonald says, is that scientists don’t have good data on how coronavirus spreads, either via surfaces or from person to person. The specifics of transmission—such as how long the virus lasts on metal as opposed to concrete, or if it can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids—affect data modeling or projections. Because that information hasn’t been nailed down, algorithms predicting where and how the virus will travel should, for now, be viewed cautiously.
The relief bill provides some oversight of government spending, through a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee that will report quarterly. The 2009 stimulus bill in response to the financial crisis similarly created an internal board that spent years auditing funds. Investigations led by that task force resulted in over 1,600 civil and criminal judgments on fraud or similar abuse charges. As Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, says, these regular updates can include checks on privacy overreach as well. But oversight may not stop overreach in the meantime.
“We have to be clued in to the fact that people will try to take advantage of this,” Hempowicz says. “And we just have to make sure that there are enough oversight mechanisms in place and conditions in place on [relief] money that we can try to head off as much of that as possible.”
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