Contact Tracing in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis

Written by Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director with Joe Cadillic, MassPrivatel Blog

The Street Surveillance Watch Blog comes to you biweekly on the National Motorists Association Blog. If you have comments or suggestions, write a comment after this blog or contact us at [email protected].

Contact Tracing in the Time of COVID-19 Crisis

Disturbing surveillance trends in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis have continued to dominate the NMA Driving News in the past two weeks. Here are just a couple of stories that involve the term contact tracing:

Shelia: Contact tracing is the newest term I learned this week concerning smartphone surveillance. Apple and Google are working together on a new app that will allow the user to see if they have been near anyone who has had the virus. It sounds like a data privacy nightmare to me. Why do private companies and governments think smartphone tracking is the way to go?

Joe: What Apple & Google are creating is more than just an anonymous COVID-19 warning app. The app will be pushed into every phone operating system, essentially creating a real-time cellphone surveillance program.

There is no central server collecting which devices have been in close contact with each other. Instead, each phone over time collects the (ephemeral) identifiers of all other phones (whether an iPhone or an Android) in its vicinity. What this means is our phones will be used to track every phone in the vicinity, in real-time.

Contact tracing essentially turns everyone’s phones into real-time government surveillance devices. Some would argue that notifying everyone of a potential COVID-19 patient in the vicinity is an acceptable trade-off.

Governments and law enforcement want real-time contact tracing because it would take the place of geolocation warrants. There will no longer be a need to ask for a warrant when everyone’s phone is turned into a real-time surveillance device.

Shelia: What are some other real-time surveillance devices that are already here or on the horizon, and how are they used? 

Joe: Some of the real-time surveillance devices already in use are Automated License Plate Readers or ALPRs, Stingray devices, and Bluetooth readers, which law enforcement uses to track people without a warrant.

Shelia: What can we do to combat real-time surveillance? I don’t think most of us want to give up our smartphones–are there any other alternatives?

Joe: One of the ways we can combat real-time surveillance is by turning off the Bluetooth function on your cellphone or in your vehicle’s infotainment center. This would help to mitigate warrantless police surveillance.

Another recommendation would be to join a group like Restore the Fourth, the Tenth Amendment Center, or the ACLU and the National Motorists Association. By becoming active in your community, it gives you and your family a chance to delay or stop invasive public surveillance programs.


Here are other the top stories from the past several weeks regarding street surveillance:

Joe also has posted the following surveillance pieces recently at his MassPrivatel Blog.

If you would like to keep track of the many issues currently involved in street surveillance, check out Joe’s blog called MassPrivatel. Also, take a daily peek at the NMA’s Driving News Feed or subscribe to Driving News Daily, a five times per week email.

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