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Using Location Surveillance to Fight COVID-19 May Chill Free Speech and Association

As governments act to contain COVID-19, tracing persons who have come in contact with infected persons is at the forefront of the move to contain the disease’s spread. Tracing people via location surveillance may prove to be an effective tool, but at what cost?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) warns that governments’ use of location surveillance can “turn our lives into open books for scrutiny for police, surveillance-based advertisers, identity thrives, and stalkers.” The information can be used to draw “sensitive inferences,” from visits to a “health center, criminal defense lawyer, an immigration clinic, or a protest planning meeting,” EFF warned in an article.

The “fear of surveillance chills and deters free speech and association,” EFF said. “What’s more, whatever personal data is collected by government can be misused by government employees, stolen by criminals and foreign governments, and unpredictably redirected by agency leaders to harmful new uses.”

Yet several governments have used location surveillance to fight COVID-19. China reportedly built new infrastructures to track movements of massive numbers of identifiable people as a COVID-19 response. Cellphone location data to identify virus carriers was tapped by Israel; it issued quarantine orders based on that information.

The U.S. has sought large volumes of de-identified location data from Facebook and Google. About a dozen countries are reportedly using a spy tool built by NSO Group that uses cellphone location data to match them with infected people in their vicinity. Surveillance location data are also being used to predict the next virus hotspot.

A “constant infosec threat,” EFF said, is data re-identification of de-identified data. “De-identification is especially hard, since location data points serve as identification of their own. Also re-identification can be achieved by correlating de-identified data with other publicly available data like voter rolls, and with oceans of information about identifiable people that are sold by data brokers.”

As computer science and privacy specialist Professor Matt Blaze said, “One of the things we have learned over time is that something that seems anonymous, more often than not, is not anonymous, even if it’s designed with the best intentions.”

EFF also pointed out that “when government builds new surveillance programs in secret, these programs quickly lead to unjustified privacy abuses.” Thus, governments should not be able to use COVID-19 as an excuse to use location surveillance data “unless they can show the public how these powers would actually help, in a significant manner, to contain COVID-19.”

Even then, EFF urged there must be “safeguards, limits, auditing, and accountability measures.” It pointed out that COVID-19 may now be so widespread, that the use of location surveillance data is no longer a significant way to reduce its transmission.

Increasing surveillance of citizens in the name of health may be effective, but it also comes at the cost of impinging on citizens’ privacy and may chill their right to free speech and association. 


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