Big Tech teams up with White House to battle Covid-19 – and spy on us all
Governments and scientists alike agree that ‘tracking’ is a key strategy for containing the coronavirus. It is now clear they intend to do so using technology like smartphones, a move that raises concerns about privacy, however.
Both US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence made sure to mention the ‘Covid-19 Screening Tool’ app developed by Apple at their daily press briefing on Friday. According to the White House, the app “guides users through questions about symptoms and exposure,” using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “to help determine steps they should take, including testing.”
Huge thanks to @Apple! Together with the White House, @CDCgov & @fema, Apple launched a COVID19 screening tool that guides users through questions about symptoms and exposure, using CDC guidance to help determine steps they should take, including testing.https://t.co/CN7gO3svKG— The White House (@WhiteHouse) March 27, 2020
Considering how many Americans use Apple devices – almost 200 million, according to some of the most recent estimates – the app certainly seems like the ideal way for the authorities to identify and track everyone who might be displaying symptoms of the coronavirus.
There is no question that cell phone data can be, and is being, tracked. The video clip showing the dispersion of Spring Break-goers from Florida back across the US, which went viral on Thursday, is proof of that.
This shows the location data of phones that were on a Florida beach during Spring Break. It then shows where those phones traveled.First thing you should note is the importance of social distancing. The second is how much data your phone gives off. pic.twitter.com/iokUX3qjeB— Mikael Thalen (@MikaelThalen) March 26, 2020
The question that some Americans are now beginning to ask is, “where does the information people put into the new Apple Covid-19 app go and what happens to it?”
To that, there is no clear answer. On the page promoting the app, Apple says it is “not collecting your answers from the screening tool,” but does collect “some information about how you use it,” ostensibly to improve the site, in standard tech-speak. “The information collected will not personally identify you,” Apple says – but that’s a moot point, since the phone ID does that.
“As always, the data is yours and your privacy is protected,” Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted. That’s a strong pledge, especially considering that the FBI had to hire Israeli hackers to access iPhones of terrorist suspects because Apple refused to hand over the keys to their encryption.
How are you feeling? Help build a national database of people who do, and do not, have CoVid-19 symptoms. Volunteers from Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet worked nonstop for a week to create the site. Data will be shared only with public-health officials. https://t.co/GLlsOzIyKIpic.twitter.com/w9FMLpwa0w— David Pogue (@Pogue) March 23, 2020
Keep in mind, however, that volunteers from “Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet” – Google’s parent company – have recently built a “national database of people” who do or do not have Covid-19 symptoms, according to a New York Times columnist. Its data “will be shared only with public-health officials,” he said.
Meanwhile, Amazon has rolled out some expanded capabilities for its digital assistant Alexa, enabling it to chat with customers and “provide CDC guidance given your risk level and symptoms.”Also on rt.com Amazon's Alexa now offering to diagnose coronavirus in happy marriage of Big Tech with Big Brother
Earlier this month, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the country’s intelligence to track everyone’s cell phone in order to find and contain coronavirus patients. When the Knesset balked at authorizing the measure, Netanyahu enforced it citing emergency powers.
While the US is not Israel, the precedent is tempting – especially given the time of crisis and the “invisible enemy” that has already crippled the economy and threatens to overwhelm hospitals, if doomsday models are to be believed. After all, following 9/11 the NSA began to spy on Americans and the TSA began body-searching them at airports, under laws that created new categories of search and surveillance to bypass constitutional protections.
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