On Monday, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said that things are going to get much worse in the week ahead and too many people aren’t taking the spread of COVID-19 seriously enough. Shelter in place and lockdown orders started about a week ago, and today, roughly one in three U.S. citizens are being asked to stay at home and limit their movements. But some experts, like WHO executive director Dr. Michael Ryan, say lockdown is not enough.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a lead advisor to the White House’s COVID-19 task force, argued last week in favor of restricting movement across the country, and government officials are reportedly considering the use of facial recognition or tracking devices to slow the spread of COVID-19. But privacy advocates fear any such measures could lead to the creation of tracking systems that — like the Patriot Act after 9/11 — may permanently strip away personal liberties.

Perhaps some people — like a sophomore on spring break — find the economic and public safety arguments in favor of slowing the spread of COVID-19 unconvincing. But if you value privacy and due process or you don’t like the idea of handing federal law enforcement the ability to indefinitely detain people during a pandemic, then do your part to flatten the curve.

“Flatten the curve” is an expression public health officials are using to explain how when people practice social distancing, wash their hands often, and stay home, they help reduce the rate of transmission and avoid a catastrophic ballooning of cases. This reduces the burden on health care systems that many already expect will be overwhelmed by the pandemic.

Surveillance signals

Privacy advocates are concerned about a range of signals that have emerged in recent days.

Sources familiar with the matter told the Wall Street Journal last week that the government is considering using facial recognition and geolocation data to track COVID-19 patients or those suspected of having contracted the virus. In the face of a national emergency, some laws confer broad powers on government officials that privacy advocates say may extend to smartphone data.

AI leaders like Facebook and Google are reportedly working with the federal government on data-sharing tools for tracking COVID-19. Smaller companies that apply machine learning to COVID-19 infection tracking are also working with the government, sources familiar with the matter told the Washington Post. Companies like Clearview AI are now pitching their facial recognition technology made from billions of photos scraped from social media and the web to state agencies that could use the tools to track people with COVID-19. On Saturday, the Department of Justice reportedly requested that judges grant the ability to detain people indefinitely. That’s a potential suspension of the constitutional right to habeas corpus and could grant the DOJ new powers in other stages of the legal process.

Statements from high-ranking government officials also suggest AI-powered surveillance tech could grow during the pandemic. Shortly after President Trump declared a national emergency a little over a week ago, Fauci said working with private industry is important for a lot of reasons, including surveillance.

“For what it was designed for, [the CDC] worked very well — the CDC designed a good system. If you want to get the kind of blanket testing and availability that anybody can get … or … even do surveillance to find out what the penetrance is, you have to embrace the private sector. And this is exactly what you’re seeing because you can’t do it without them,” Fauci said in a White House COVID-19 task force press conference.

In a tweet last week, a high-ranking U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official shared unsolicited praise of facial recognition as a sanitary way to check a person’s identity without exposure to COVID-19.

A temporary end to privacy?

As COVID-19 and its economic consequences raged on this week, so did debate about privacy and personal freedom. Members of Congress concerned about privacy amid the crisis say personal data should be anonymized wherever possible, only private companies should be allowed to collect COVID-19-related data, and governments and businesses must be required to delete all COVID-19 data once the crisis is over.

World Economic Forum Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution director Kay-Firth Butterfield also released a statement reminding people of the ethics and privacy implications at play right now.

“With most tech workers gone from Silicon Valley campuses, we need to keep in mind that the big ethical challenges around privacy, accountability, bias, and transparency of artificial intelligence remain. We have been on the cusp of a tech-lash for many months, and it could get worse if at the other side of the COVID-19 crisis systems have been developed and deployed that are ethically challenged,” Firth-Butterfield said in a statement.

The coronavirus struck at a time when lawmakers in Congress had reached bipartisan agreement on the need to reign in federal government use of facial recognition software. Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) launched the Who Has Your Face project, which lets average people find out if federal law enforcement officials are likely scanning their photos.

Before the spread of COVID-19 far beyond China, a VentureBeat AI Weekly article had examined how China was applying tech like location data, mobile payment apps, and AI in its fight against the coronavirus.

China used facial recognition and various means of tracking and surveillance as part of its quarantine of 50 million people in the Wuhan region earlier this year, and companies are keen to sell the narrative that pervasive surveillance — like GPS tracking for every person with a smartphone — is necessary for more powerful disease vector tracking.

China, Italy, South Korea, and other countries hit hard by COVID-19 are using location tracking data to follow the movement of confirmed case clusters.

To be clear: We won’t know the effectiveness of shutdowns happening across the U.S. for weeks. We’re also waiting to find out just how strictly public health and government officials must limit free movement to slow rates of infection. And we’re still learning a lot about the novel disease, including its impact on young people and the role people with few or no symptoms play in spreading COVID-19.

At this point, health experts expect a majority of U.S. citizens will get COVID-19. Containment is no longer an option, and we must now reduce the rate of spread and protect the elderly, people with diabetes or autoimmune diseases, and anyone with other preexisting conditions.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. may not peak for weeks, and a CDC estimate predicts waves of coronavirus outbreaks over at least the next 12 to 18 months. This means concepts that are new to a lot of people, like sheltering in place and social distancing, might not be enough to slow the spread of the disease.

If you don’t like the idea of the government limiting your personal freedoms, of more invasive measures being imposed, or of temporary surveillance becoming permanent, then stay home, practice social distancing, and flatten the curve. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Fauci suggests everyone act as if they have the virus right now.

Flattening the curve will be an effective way to keep our loved ones safer, soften the societal impact of the pandemic, and counter tech companies hawking widespread surveillance tools.


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