In brief

  • The federal government is in talks with major tech companies to compile anonymized data from cellphones to track and fight the novel coronavirus.
  • It’s an open question whether companies can compile data in this way without infringing on privacy.
  • One expert is worried that this might lead to a new “Patriot Act” and give rise to surveillance states across the world.

The US government is in talks with Facebook, Google, and other tech companies to compile location data from individual cellphones to combat the coronavirus, according to a report by The Washington Post

An anonymous source told the Post that government health experts want tech companies to collect “anonymous, aggregated” data. The data could be used to map COVID-19’s spread, determine whether Americans are practicing social distancing, predict localized outbreaks, and make decisions about where to allocate resources.

The talks are reportedly in their early stages, and ideas are still being proposed. And though the intention is to collect anonymous data, is this even possible without infringing on the privacy of individuals?

Anthony Pompliano, co-founder and partner at Morgan Creek Digital, has concerns. "The privacy of American citizens should be the number one priority for private technology companies and the US government,” he told Decrypt. “The COVID-19 issue is real and we should be addressing it in every way possible, but we also must remember to respect the US Constitution, along with the rights of our citizens.”

Will Reeves, CEO and co-founder of Fold App, took it a step further. “It is not currently possible to use the data in a strictly anonymous way,” he told Decrypt. “This is absolutely an invasion of privacy. The question is if that invasion is warranted.”

In light of this report, Reeves thinks this might be a glimpse at a new “Patriot Act,” referring to legislation passed in response to the September 11 attacks that expanded the government's power to snoop on the private data of citizens. 

 

“Crises like this always give cover to push through previously untenable policies, it’s the public’s job to stay vigilant during these times,” Reeves said. “As we saw with the Patriot Act, it can take a decade to uncover the full implications of these policies [such as] warrantless wiretapping.”

Reeves has a point. Last week, it was revealed that at least one senator is toying with a law that could render end-to-end encryption irrelevant by providing law enforcement with a backdoor into individuals’ communications.

Any legislation or policies pushed forward today could have bigger ramifications down the line. Reeves pointed to how technology has advanced exponentially since the Patriot Act was passed. Ring doorbells, originally intended for owners’ safety, can be directly accessed by authorities. His concern is that ratcheting up the stakes will put the US and other countries on course to be a full-blown surveillance state. Just look at China.

“The Chinese response to Covid will be lauded and other countries will move to mirror their capabilities,” Reeves said. “The issue is that their successful response is partly predicated on having a robust surveillance state.”