It’s no secret that smartphones are an incredible data collection tool used for all manner of spying. Most of the time the spying is by people who want to sell you things, but increasingly governments are finding uses for the amazing tracking device in your pocket, usually within some sort of legal constraint. The Chinese Bioweapon COVID-19 has given them new “justifications” for this spying, and it’s increasing almost as exponentially as the virus is spreading.
From Aaron Kesel at Activist Post :
All over the world, starting with China – the suspected origin of the COVID-19 outbreak – governments are increasing surveillance of citizens using their smartphones. The trend is taking off like wildfire; in China citizens now require a smartphone application’s permission to travel around the country and internationally.
The application is AliPay by Ant Financial, the finance affiliate controlled by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. co-founder Jack Ma, and Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s WeChat. Citizens now require a green health code to travel, Yahoo News reported.
China isn’t the only country looking towards smartphones to monitor their citizens; Israel and Poland have also implemented their own spying to monitor those suspected or confirmed to be infected with the COVID-19 virus. Israel has gone the more extreme route, and has now given itself authority to surveil any citizen without a court warrant. Poland on the other hand is requiring those diagnosed with COVID-19 ordered to self-isolate to send authorities a selfie using an app. Which, if Poles don’t respond back in 20 minutes with a smiling face, they risk a visit from police, Dailymail reported.
Singapore has asked citizens to download an app which uses Bluetooth to track whether they’ve been near anyone diagnosed with the virus; and Taiwan, although not using a smartphone, has introduced “electronic fences” which alert police if suspected patients leave their homes.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S. as reported by the Washington Post, smartphones are being used by a variety of companies to “anonymously” collect user data and track if social distancing orders are being adhered to. Beyond that, the mobile phone industry is discussing how to monitor the spread of COVID-19. If that’s not enough, as this author reported for The Mind Unleashed, the government wants to work with big social tech giants like Google, Facebook, and others, to track the spread of COVID-19.
As Activist Post previously wrote while discussing the increase of a police surveillance state, these measures being put into place now will likely remain long after the pandemic has stopped and the virus has run its course. That’s the everlasting effect that COVID-19 will have on our society. The coronavirus is now classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, and it may very well be a legitimate health concern for all of us around the world. But it’s the government’s response that should worry us all more in the long run.
Yes, I think Aaron is right. For those of us who value our privacy, this should prompt a long-overdue stocktake of what information we are making readily available. This doesn’t just mean thinking about what our smartphones know about us, but also what social media and tech giants know as well, and where they’re storing it.
Going back to the point, surveillance around the Bioweapon outbreak, I feel sorry for the people in Poland who are being told to send in selfies whenever the app demands them. I’d rather have the police knock on my door occasionally than deal with an app like that.
Is Australia heading down that path? Well, the Australian government has released a Coronavirus app full of “official information”. I’d be willing to bet it has more features than that and the potential the help enforce a lockdown, or at least the ability to monitor locations. I’m certainly not downloading the app.
There has also been information released by the telephone companies and the advertising companies which use your phone’s location data, about the number of people they are noticing using mobile data in public areas. This, apparently, provides a bit of a snapshot of how many people are staying at home and how many people are going out a bit less than or as much as previously. Undoubtedly this type of data can be used in (the very very near, such as later this week or next week) future to work out if people are congregating in groups, and track exactly who those people are and direct official uniformed people to them wherever they may go. Unfortunately phone location data is not particularly accurate when it comes to this level of tracking as it’s only really accurate down to a few metres, so the fact that you show up in the general vicinity of other people doesn’t prove much as it lacks any context about the reason for you being in your location, but in these times could put you in a position of having to justify a perfectly legal and innocent act. So much for innocent until proven guilty. To use a phrase common in US courts, the data is more prejudicial than probative.
For this reason I have taken the simple step of turning off the location services in my phone’s settings. This means the best that can be done is tracking my location is working out which cell tower or wifi access point I was connected to. This can give a general impression of movements within kilometres for phone towers and dozens of metres for wifi access points, but not exact locations. And as I only use wifi at home and work, this is a good enough effort at preventing suspicious minds from snooping too closely and making baseless accusations about my movements and activities.
If we get to a proper lockdown (and we’re certainly getting there) and uniformed officials observe me doing something they think is not acceptable under the rules, I’m fine with them challenging me in person, but I won’t stand for automated accusation based on dodgy location data.