As the COVID-19 lockdown hopefully approaches its end in the US, many have been left wondering how our long-term future will be impacted by recent events. With fresh memories of Chinese mass decontamination efforts and growing concern over the world economy having been generally flushed down the toilet, the internet has thankfully come to our rescue by releasing a whole slew of sexy virus memes and snuggleable Coronavirus-chan body pillows.
That last link is not safe for work, by the way.
Meanwhile, both the US Center for Disease Control and American Red Cross have released smartphone apps to help keep users informed, and Cambridge University has developed FluPhone, an app intended to help researchers study the spread of the virus, as Dr. Eiko Yoneki explains:
- “The application in the mobile phone monitors influenza-like symptoms by prompting questions for the mobile phone owner. It also capturesc physical proximity information between individuals by recording other devices nearby via Bluetooth communication.”
- “In a pilot study, volunteers (mainly University of Cambridge employees and students) downloaded a Java-based application to their mobile phones using an intuitive interface. Ethical issues were handled carefully during participant registration to the FluPhone study, and the study did not record the location information using GPS because of ethical considerations.”
Is There A Corporation In The House?
Not to be hindered by mere ethical concerns, Google has recently announced a joint effort with Apple to make similar use of bluetooth technology to fight the virus more directly:
- “Apple and Google will be launching a comprehensive solution that includes application programming interfaces (APIs) and operating system-level technology to assist in enabling contact tracing.”
- “…both companies will release APIs that enable interoperability between Android and iOS devices using apps from public health authorities. These official apps will be available for users to download via their respective app stores.“
- “…in the coming months, Apple and Google will work to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms.”
Translation: the developers the Android and iOS are working together to build an integrated system into the operating systems of smartphones to allow them to monitor “proximity events” between users. That is, any time that you with your smartphone simply walk past somebody else with a smartphone, both Apple and Google would know about it.
So What? It Sounds Okay To Me!
In theory, of course, this would be to keep you informed when you’re near somebody who’s been infected with the virus, and to help the powers-that-be anticipate likely future outbreaks.
In practice, however, this would be perhaps the most draconian program of mass-surveillance ever unleashed on the public. For now, their language seems to imply that these apps would be available on a purely opt-in basis. But it doesn’t take very much foresight to imagine these apps eventually being on by default, and who knows how difficult to remove. Go ahead and try to uninstall the facebook app from your phone to get a glimpse of how this might play out. And given their mention of “operating system-level technology” and “building functionality into the underlying platforms,” it’s at least plausible that eventually these won’t even be apps at all, but invisible “features” of the operating system itself that may be completely impossible to turn off.
As previously covered in Privacy is Dead, it’s already possible to track the general location of any cellphone. The network has to be capable of that in order to do what it does. But this new system would presumably give both Google and Apple, plus who knows how many affiliated third parties, the ability to track your precise location down to perhaps a couple feet, as well as give them a simple list of all people you’ve been physically close to, and for how long. Instead of knowing that you got into your car at 7:53 pm and drove down Roadsley Way to the local porn shop, they’ll know that at 7:58 pm you were standing within 2 feet of Miss Jones for exactly 5 minutes and 18 seconds. And this information will presumably be available in real time, with no need for complicated cross-referencing of databases between service providers.
And no chance, of course, that it would ever go away.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”