Idlewords: What we need is a massive surveillance program
March 24, 2020 3:30 PM   Subscribe

The most troubling change this project entails is giving access to sensitive location data across the entire population to a government agency. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure this project requires exists and is maintained in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is entirely unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell people skin cream.

Doctors and epidemiologists caution us that the only way to go back to some semblance of normality after the initial outbreak has been brought under control will be to move from population-wide measures (like closing schools and making everyone stay home) to an aggressive case-by-case approach that involves a combination of extensive testing, rapid response, and containing clusters of infection as soon as they are found, before they have a chance to spread.
posted by mecran01 (92 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
I’m not convinced. We give the government control of this apparatus, what makes anyone think they’ll willingly give it up or dismantle it after the crisis is over?
posted by SansPoint at 3:44 PM on March 24 [19 favorites]


Ah, someone else has seen Ideation.
posted by Flannery Culp at 3:48 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


It always seems like the American solution is to rely on the kindness [profitability] of huge mega-corporations, when they've failed us so many times in the past.
posted by meowzilla at 4:07 PM on March 24 [13 favorites]


Really great (/s) how well Peter Watts (Blindsight, Echopraxia) predicted massive surveillance infrastructure being rolled out to combat a constant threat of deadly pandemics.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:10 PM on March 24 [6 favorites]


what makes anyone think they’ll willingly give it up or dismantle it after the crisis is over?

I think there's good reason to think they're already doing it, just as they've been massively recording phone calls. I've noticed a number of reports that talk vaguely about "phone records" being used in investigations, with the implication being that they had retroactively traced the suspect's movements that way. Why would phone companies be keeping records of people's movements if not for this very reason?
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:24 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


There was that guy back in 2013 who revealed a bunch of stuff about mass surveillance. As if it wasn't Orwellian enough on its own, now there is this memory hole or doublethink thing going on. Have people forgotten the revelations, or only selectively believe it?

I don't think whatever apparatus exists will be used as a major tool to fight the pandemic. It's too high-profile. It seems to me that one of the main goals of surveillance is to remain unnoticed by the surveilled. Solving a major world crisis would draw too much attention, and threaten the thin pretense of consent around the whole thing.
posted by swr at 4:47 PM on March 24 [13 favorites]


swr: Another goal of surveillance can be to keep the surveilled on their toes, and censor/control themselves. If they can't escape surveillance, there's little reason to hide it.
posted by Belostomatidae at 4:55 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]



swr: Another goal of surveillance can be to keep the surveilled on their toes, and censor/control themselves. If they can't escape surveillance, there's little reason to hide it.


Modern example See: china, uighurs etc.
posted by lalochezia at 5:00 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I'm astonished and dismayed that Maciej would post this. He's one of the last people I would have expected to support this. There are other ways to combat a pandemic, and it's inevitable that this would make it harder to later get rid of the surveillance that already exists.

Heck, you could just put out an app that would explicitly opt people in to having their location tracked, with the promise that they'll be notified if they came into proximity with someone who was found to be infected. People would do it, and that would help a great deal with contact tracing.

I don't think we need to resort to monitoring people's movement via their phones once they're infected; just let everyone around them know they're infected, and people will refuse to party with them. (This would ordinarily be a breach of medical privacy, but I think it's appropriate in a pandemic. Could be persuaded otherwise, I suppose.)
posted by Belostomatidae at 5:01 PM on March 24 [9 favorites]


No not everyone carries a cell phone.
The police herabouts have automated license plate recording/data mining systems.
John Doe visits this store every other Saturday between 9:15 and 10:31.

Hard to dodge if you drive.
posted by ahimsakid at 5:03 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


Flannery Culp: "Ah, someone else has seen Ideation."

From that link, QFT:

“It is the most remarkable thing about you — about Americans,” Sandeep replies. “You are so entirely trusting while at the same time being so profoundly paranoid about the wrong things.”

posted by chavenet at 5:07 PM on March 24 [11 favorites]


I don't think we need to resort to monitoring people's movement via their phones once they're infected; just let everyone around them know they're infected, and people will refuse to party with them. (This would ordinarily be a breach of medical privacy, but I think it's appropriate in a pandemic. Could be persuaded otherwise, I suppose.)

Okay, here's the first infected person bulletin under your system: John Smith in your area is infected and extremely virulent. Is that guy on the elevator with you John Smith? Is the guy delivering your groceries? Is the guy who sat coughing on that park bench 5 minutes ago but left before you got there and you've never seen?

I mean, not only will this idea lead to the exact same mob mentality that has to put it mildly a disappointing history in the criminal justice realm, but it's not even useful.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 5:10 PM on March 24 [9 favorites]


Wherever America creates a regulatory vacuum, capital fills it in. Maybe even forms government partnerships, where it can, if it is good for business or PR.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 5:13 PM on March 24


See also privacy perserving alternatives for mobile phone based contact tracing. Singapore is doing this now with an app called Trace Together. Basically you are identified with a random ID but not your actual name / phone number. (Yes, a police state / spy agency could break this, but the intent is at least to provide anonymity.)
posted by Nelson at 5:20 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


Aah. The New Normal.
posted by Jode at 5:21 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


Peter Watts … predicted massive surveillance infrastructure being rolled out to combat a constant threat of deadly pandemics

Maybe less predicted, more gave people ideas. Our cultural fixation on dystopian sci-fi may being giving us what we wish for.
posted by scruss at 5:21 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


John Smith in your area is infected and extremely virulent. Is that guy on the elevator with you John Smith? Is the guy delivering your groceries? Is the guy who sat coughing on that park bench 5 minutes ago but left before you got there and you've never seen?

I'm guessing the idea is to help the authorities do contact tracing to identify people for testing and isolation, rather than for the general public to use like some kind of anti-Tinder.
posted by swr at 5:36 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


There has been discussion of opt-in options where you can have your data stored locally on your phone and then if you are determined to be positive for Covid-19, only then share that info with the relevant local agency (Dept of Health might be already overloaded, I'm not sure what other public agencies would want to take this on).

But basically contact tracing thru mobile data surveillance is one of the reasons why South Korea has been relatively successful in flattening the curve. If you know you have exposure AND you are able to get tested quickly, then you can reduce transmission. My parents (in Seoul) get multiple alerts a day from the district office about the locations known to be frequented by a confirmed case.

At the same time, mobile data surveillance is also deeply alarming. Korea's NSA equivalent is horrifying and toxic and been wielded with bloody effects in the name of anti-Communism through the military dictatorship era, but present day democratic administrations have also been using its sweeping powers.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:37 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]


it's inevitable that this would make it harder to later get rid of the surveillance that already exists.
I mean, would it make it harder? I haven't seen any viable-looking path to uprooting the surveillance state without cataclysmic upheaval in the meantime, so I don't know that it's that out of line to go "If we're going to have this monster either way, the least it could do is be helpful the one case where it'd be a rare level of applicable".

The choices as he presents it aren't "No surveillance state" vs. "Surveillance state, but we get pandemic protection", it's "Surveillance state" vs. "Surveillance state, but we get pandemic protection (and maybe some concessions in the trade if we're lucky)"
posted by CrystalDave at 5:39 PM on March 24 [9 favorites]


I'm reminded a little of the Signal chat application and one of its chief architects Moxie Marlinspike. Signal gets some heat because it's a centralized service and requires a phone number, so there's some inherent loss of privacy. However Moxie has a history of being pro-privacy and countercultural, which I feel gives the product some trust in an "only Nixon could go to China" sort of way. Similarly here I might tentatively support this sort of surveillance if people like Maciej Cegłowski (the post's author) and other people with similar pro-privacy reputations had a real voice in designing it.
posted by bright flowers at 6:01 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


I'm astonished and dismayed that Maciej would post this. He's one of the last people I would have expected to support this.

It feels pretty natural to me as a Pinboard user, @pinboard follower (back when I still used Twitter), and erstwhile Tech Solidarity attendee. The infrastructure already exists and is being (ab)used by all sorts of actors with some kind of profit motive. Articles can and should be written about how badly location data has been protected from government or capital so far. The only reason it's not being used by our government already is that somehow that particular privacy protection exists in a way it doesn't, quite, when your cell phone company sells your location history to anybody who wants it, just as long as they're not From The Government.

The only way the economy gets started again without additional terrible waves of illness is if we can perform contact tracing (also, testing) on incredible scale. We can't do that if we don't have the data on, well, everyone. Voluntary participation won't work. Check, for example, this NYT article on how a single party in Connecticut became a "super spreader" event:
Even in a well-connected, affluent town like Westport, contact tracing quickly overwhelmed health officials. Beyond the 50 attendees, “there were another 120 on our dance list,” some of whom probably were not at the party, Mr. Cooper said. One of the party guests later acknowledged attending an event with 420 other people, he said. The officials gave up.
I'm with Maciej. I don't think this works without universal, compulsory participation. But I also thought the idea of the TSA made sense at the time of its creation (air travel is interstate commerce; why shouldn't its security be federalized) and I regret that thought now, so maybe my opinion on this isn't to be trusted either.
posted by fedward at 6:26 PM on March 24 [11 favorites]


So a privacy advocate is suddenly in favor of ubiquitous and mandatory surveillance? I think we're looking at one of the first coronavirus-derived cases of "9/11 broke my brain" syndrome
posted by Vulgar Euphemism at 6:34 PM on March 24 [15 favorites]


I'm astonished and dismayed that Maciej would post this.

Seconded. I just can't imagine why he thinks this won't immediately be used for all the worst things possible and any protections will be thrown out the window. Sure, it'll be authorized as a 'temporary' measure...that gets reauthorized every year with no discussion.

Those people would then be notified of the need to self-quarantine (or hunted with blowguns and tranquilizer darts, sent to FEMA labor camps, or whatever the effective intervention turns out to be.)


This was presented in the article like a joke, but I guarantee you someone's going to get hunted down by a vigilante mob. And we're talking about the administration who gave us baby jails, so just imagine what Stephen Miller is thinking about doing with this right now.

Of course, the worst people are in power right now, and the chances of them putting such a program through in any acceptable form are low. But it’s 2020. Weirder things have happened.


You're going to need a better plan than that. The current surveillance state is terrible, but its terribleness is at least partly contained. Give it all to the coercive powers of the state and you're entering an entirely new kind of terrible.
posted by echo target at 6:34 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


some inherent loss of privacy

ha ha ha, the minute I installed it it spammed everyone on my phone contacts that also uses it. I received about ten “welcome!” texts from the most hardcore lefties I know in about six seconds. It made me laugh, like so hard.
posted by mwhybark at 7:00 PM on March 24 [4 favorites]


Good lord. If there's anyone I would trust to have thought through the implications of what's he written, it's Maciej. It's not a joke or a "hot take" or a 180 degree turn around from his previous views. It's a reasoned recommendation for an unprecedented event in our lifetimes. I don't believe he's written it lightly.
posted by maupuia at 7:07 PM on March 24 [21 favorites]


Yes, +1 for thinking Idlewords has put some thought into this. The information is already there, being horded by fucking billionaires *spits in their direction*.

We demand it back, get through this, then figure out if we can deal with the privacy implications. Or have to make new law.
posted by hap_hazard at 7:16 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


Thank you Nelson - great article and good to know about the open source pricmvacy-preserving OPT-IN option!
posted by esoteric things at 7:47 PM on March 24


Maciej is the Albert Pierrepoint of our surveillance economy. He's seen the worst of it and thought about every aspect of it.
posted by ocschwar at 8:02 PM on March 24 [6 favorites]


Hopefully someone actually in China can elaborate how it's done - I've heard that In China it's also "Opt-In" in so far as access is not treated as a right - my understanding is that each person has a centrally logged status (green / red) that requires you to use your phone to scan a code when you enter public buildings or public transport. This "links" you to that building or vehicle and enables back-tracing contacts if someone in that building or vehicle was identified as positive. If you are flagged as red, you can't enter. Don't present your phone, you can't enter.

It should be possible to implement a system (if that's not how it currently works) where your status flips from green to red if a confirmed case has crossed your path, and the only way to flip it back to green again is to submit for testing and getting a negative result.

Crossing city borders require you to grant permission for the border officials to back-trace the last two weeks of your GPS data to ensure you haven't entered any red zones.
posted by xdvesper at 8:50 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


If we do permit ourselves to be universally tracked due to the pandemic crisis, exactly how do we think we’re going to force the government and the tech companies that will collaborate with it on these efforts to give up that power when the crisis ends?

What leverage will we have?

It’ll become quite a bit harder to effectively organize mass protests and civil disobedience. And I don’t trust the current crop of populist world leaders to give up the reins of power just because we asked nicely.

While I’m at it, I also find it deeply depressing that even long-time privacy advocates appear to be concluding that universal surveillance has won, it’s here to stay, and we might as well accept the panopticon. Even I’m not quite that hopeless yet, and I’m a pretty bleak person.
posted by faineg at 9:12 PM on March 24 [3 favorites]


"The information is already there, it just has to be collated" is a terrible argument. Everybody has known for DECADES that the information was there, and that the collation of it was the inherent privacy harm.

And be decades, I don't mean two. I mean five.

Also, if there's any one lesson to be learned in a crisis, it's that technological solutions being proposed in the moment ALWAYS overpromise. "It would be useful to know who's been near whom" is a nice thought, but based on cell locations that are "precise to a few meters"? In a city? You get massive numbers that don't actually mean anything. Sure, you can start picking out useful bits at the margins, but what's the advantage of this over, say, interviewing people? But the tradeoff is just, you know, civil liberties.

The idea that we should give up legal protections because these laws are being violated anyway is a naive nihilism that just leverages cynicism in the service of increasing state power. It's as bullshit as the idea that open, "honest" racism is better than racism that is shamed. No, open racism is worse because it encourages more violence it us unchecked; open, legalized surveillance is worse in the same way.

We will *not* be getting the benefits of a public health system that just provides a friendly face to existing, more sinister surveillance systems; people almost always overestimate the technological sophistication and coordination of those covert systems. No, you're explicitly building, in the open, the infrastructure that newer, more invasive covert systems can then piggyback on top of.

"But this proposal doesn’t require us to give up any liberty that we didn't already sacrifice long ago, on the altar of convenience. " This, again, makes the mistake of drawing a strict line between "known" and "private." It actually *matters* WHO holds what information. Yes, a government can get information from a company. But that's not instantaneous, or complete, and that friction is a part of the privacy we have just as much as the fact that paper records were hard to access used to be a part of privacy protections. It's a feature that was never understood *as* a feature until it was gone, and then legal and normative protections had to be rebuilt around its new absence.

And it's not just a matter of convenience; it's also a matter of laws. The fact that there are actually legal processes constraining law enforcement and intelligence use matters, from a moral and a practical perspective. The need for an intelligence agency to make a showing to the FISC already constrains what they're willing to take a shot at, and it provides that hook for challenges later. We have laws against things that are hard to enforce for a reason--they indicate the boundaries of what we consider acceptable in our society, even if those boundaries are hard to enforce. It is right and good that it's illegal to litter in the middle of Glacier Bay National Park, even if no one will ever, ever catch anyone doing it.

Smart people can still be fantastically naive about complex systems, and this is another example of that in action.
posted by pykrete jungle at 9:36 PM on March 24 [15 favorites]


One of the greatest policy coups of anti-privacy activists (corporate or government) is convincing people that "they" already know "everything." Because if people think they've already lost it, and "get over it," they're not going to put up a fight to protect what they've got. I'm seeing the fruits of that campaign in this thread here.

Extraordinary claims--that a massive surveillance state is actually the best way to curb a pandemic--require extraordinary evidence. I'm not seeing even ordinary evidence here. See Nelson's post re TraceTogether. See how actual epidemiologists do their work, and not the imagined abstractions discussed by technologists. Only after that do you even get what might be useful in exchange for stripping away legal, technological, and normative protections for privacy.
posted by pykrete jungle at 9:47 PM on March 24 [9 favorites]


Here are 11 countries that had already jumped at the great opportunity to ramp up citizen surveillance, infringing on people's civil liberties and basic rights to various degrees.

It is incredibly sad to see my country as number 3 on that list; sadder still is the fact that it should have been number two.
posted by Green-eyed grenade at 9:51 PM on March 24 [1 favorite]


ha ha ha, the minute I installed it it spammed everyone on my phone contacts that also uses it.

Here’s how Signal contact discovery actually works:
Signal periodically sends truncated cryptographically hashed phone numbers for contact discovery. Names are never transmitted, and the information is not stored on the servers. The server responds with the contacts that are Signal users and then immediately discards this information. Your phone now knows which of your contacts is a Signal user and notifies you if your contact just started using Signal.
posted by zamboni at 9:54 PM on March 24 [5 favorites]


See also privacy perserving alternatives for mobile phone based contact tracing. Singapore is doing this now with an app called Trace Together. Basically you are identified with a random ID but not your actual name / phone number. (Yes, a police state / spy agency could break this, but the intent is at least to provide anonymity.)
posted by Nelson at 8:20 AM on March 25


Phone numbers are collected, but not any other personal data and (more crucially) there is no location info being collected or transmitted. TraceTogether operates by recording bluetooth handshakes with anybody within a 10 metre radius who has the app. For contact tracing, it's arguably the more efficient and precise way to go instead of location-based tracking that still needs additional data processing to map and connect users.

As much as Singapore government flexes its nanny state credentials in other contexts, they chose not to do so in this case. All info is stored locally and is only sent to the health authorities after the user tests positive. But that's when the powerful Infectious Diseases Act kicks in, making it mandatory to surrender info. So for such an app to work, you need widespread adoption (due to decentralised user proximity mapping) AND legislative backing to override consent issues with surrendering data.

There are still technical and security issues (esp with having to keep Bluetooth on at all times), but at least the government did think through privacy concerns and elected not to use the pandemic as an excuse to ramp up surveillance.
posted by hellopanda at 10:04 PM on March 24 [8 favorites]


Every one of us now carries a mobile tracking device that leaves a permanent trail of location data.

I think the article suffers a bit from the author being so deeply invested in surveillance issues to the point of losing something of the larger context in which things like phone use are taken up, at least in the US. I, for example, have no "permanent trail of location data" from a mobile tracking device because I don't even own a smart phone or anything of the sort. Were I to test positive for some virus there wouldn't be any warning about who has come in contact with me or places that might pose a risk to me.

It's easy to say most people are not like me and have smart phones or whatever, but that misses something of the point the author later brings up about convenience. People allow phones to track them because they get something out of it, some minor ease that comes from the convenience of not having to make some extra effort to get in touch with others, to get "rewards", or just to amuse ourselves with apps. That convenience is lost when those same phones act as a deterrent to the things we want to accomplish, which is what would happen to those who would be carriers or have maybe come in contact with a potential virus infected area. Those who are most worried about health conditions would welcome a chance to avoid contagion, but those who are primarily concerned with their own interests and freedom of movement would simply stop carrying their phones since the utility of convenience has been replaced with burden.

One could mandate phone carrying and force those like myself without phones to get one, but then why use phones at all? Why not ankle monitors for those deemed at risk that trigger all phones nearby with a warning should the monitor come into unacceptable range? Being forced to carry a phone isn't all that different than an ankle monitor other than having better apps. If one assumes smart phone use is and will remain so essential that people simply will have to have them, then bricking the phones of those deemed at highest potential and sending warnings to all their contacts about their possible infection could also be done in an attempt to force social isolation, or just use the tracking to hunt those people down and lock them up.

The reliance on technology in these kinds of matters is deeply problematic because that technology can be turned so easily into coercive and restrictive government measures that might seem to promise greater security to some few but at the expense of that of others. The allure of information that might be seen as keeping "me" safe can easily lead me to accept whatever means are used to force those claimed as "threats" to lose their freedoms. There are times of need where those kinds of balancing acts may be necessary, the needs of the many outweighing the wants of the few, but making those trade offs too easy and giving that power to government is its own kind of threat. Do we really think a Trump government wouldn't use this sort of power as an excuse to track migrants or other unwanted people under the guise of some claimed disease or just as constituting a threat in itself?

Global pandemics require global solutions that should be put in place to prevent or limit the spread of disease long before we reach the point of individual localities having to issue a thousand different orders over what will happen. When an epidemic is reported passenger travel should be shut down to and from the affected area, or even worldwide, immediately and automatically until the outbreak is controlled. This should be the providence of a body like WHO and agreed to by all governments as a global health measure with a set procedure for automatic funding and assistance to the people caught in the infected area and for help in combating the outbreak to also start immediately to prevent the burden from falling too heavily on one nation and potentially threatening the quarantine due to economic worries. That's a bit of fantasy in this current environment perhaps, but then again so is the thought that government surveillance on a state by state basis will be either entirely adequate or benign.
posted by gusottertrout at 10:17 PM on March 24 [7 favorites]


Privacy aside, cellphone GPS data is just not technically well-suited to the problem. First, as noted, many people don't have cellphones. Second, the location accuracy is on the order of ten meters on each side, which is 10x the "six feet for ten minutes" definition of a close contact. Third, transmission is most effective indoors, where GPS goes to hell. (Also, phones hate to keep GPS warmed up when it's not needed, because it kills your battery.)

Singapore is using Bluetooth proximity detection, which has privacy issues too, but at least has more of a match to what you're trying to do.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:07 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I use Telegram - Signal is dubious, as is Marlinspike, for reference

https://thebaffler.com/salvos/the-crypto-keepers-levine

The logic is the same as all the 9/11 measures. We tolerate road deaths - imagine if you had to go through the same level of scrutiny to be a passenger in a car as to be a passenger in a plane - not to mention the level of training to steer the thing.

I know there are terrorists - and I am sure that one of them probably totally hates me or someone like me and would put a lot of effort in to killing me. I am still more worried about being assaulted as a result of some drunken buffoon thinking an old female is a soft target.

I don't trust anyone with my data - it is extracted from me under duress and NEVER volunteered.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 11:19 PM on March 24 [2 favorites]


I think there's good reason to think they're already doing it, just as they've been massively recording phone calls.

There is literally no question that the cell carriers have been collecting individual location data for many years. They paid large (yet still an order of magnitude less than the revenue from selling the data) fines for failing to protect that data according to the terms of their agreements with their customers within the past few months. The horse already left the barn. I'd link to an Are Technica article discussing the fines, but I'm on my phone where searching is hard.

Using what already exists to combat the pandemic raises no new issues of privacy or government abuse. There have been websites selling the data for years. Why shouldn't public health departments use it? Police departments have been requesting, and receiving, this data directly from cell carriers since the middle 2000s. It hasn't been secret, there have been at least four separate rounds of widespread breathless media coverage.
posted by wierdo at 12:18 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I use Telegram - Signal is dubious

I have never read anything from an information source I've had good reason to trust that suggests that the average punter using Signal is more susceptible to data hoovering than the average punter using Telegram. Quite the reverse, in fact; it's taken Telegram a lot of years to get the security of its messaging protocol to a state approaching the strength that Signal's has had from the get-go. And no, one Baffler contributor's discovery that a Telegram dev is surprisingly more personable than expected is not a good reason to trust their clumsy attempt to negate Moxie Marlinspike's well-earned credibility within the crypto community.

That said, personally I like Keybase better than either, because I think it does a better job of ensuring that the person I'm communicating with is actually who I believe them to be.
posted by flabdablet at 4:41 AM on March 25 [10 favorites]




I use Telegram - Signal is dubious, as is Marlinspike, for referencertainly

Apologies for participating in a derail, but that reference is garbage. At least, the section on Signal is.
posted by Nelson at 6:05 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]


I use Telegram - Signal is dubious, as is Marlinspike, for referencertainly

Apologies for participating in a derail, but that reference is garbage. At least, the section on Signal is.


To help me judge how garbage it is - the section on Signal uses inflammatory language (e.g. "propaganda shop" wrt the BBG) but also makes a number of factual claims, are these false?

e.g. "Signal was brought to life with funding from the BBG-supported Open Technology Fund (which has pumped in almost $3 million since 2013), and appears to rely on continued government funding for survival."
posted by Beware of the leopard at 8:28 AM on March 25


I was under the impression that for Maciej complaining about privacy was more of a means to an end. The end was to kneecap Facebook and Google's stranglehold on the advertising industry, which has caused the media apocalypse. See this speech:

The losers are small publishers and small advertisers. Universal click fraud drives down the value of all advertising, making it harder for niche publishers to make ends meet. And it ensures that any advertiser who doesn't invest heavily in countermeasures and tracking will get eaten alive.
...
Sites with niche content might be able to make a living from advertising again.

posted by zabuni at 8:39 AM on March 25


This'll teach me to join a derail. Yes, Signal received early finding from the Open Technology Fund. No, it does not "rely on continued government funding for survival"; if you want to talk about Signal's funding now you have to start and end with the $50M grant from Brian Acton that funds it now. I'm sure there's a conspiracy theory about that too. That funding came after the Baffler article was written. More broadly speaking the article is garbage for various stupid statements like "Its encryption algorithm is supposed to be flawless, but the app’s backend runs as a cloud service on Amazon, which is itself a major CIA contractor." The whole fucking point of encryption is you can work with private data on untrusted systems like Amazon's. Also the fact that Amazon leases computers to the CIA has nothing to do with Signal and it's the stupidest form of ad hominem.

That's the last I'll say about the stupid Signal article. Could we please go back to talking about COVID-19 and contact tracing? It's a fascinating topic, particularly given the Singapore example.
posted by Nelson at 8:50 AM on March 25 [7 favorites]


This short documentary (DW, slyt, 28min) from the lockdown in Beijing shows the tracking app in action. Basically, it's Google Maps with pins all over showing new cases. When you click on one of the pins, a half-dozen or so new pins (in a different color) pop up showing places, stores, etc where that person went in the last week. It seems pretty well anonymized, but I'm sure that breaks down pretty quick as you move out from the city's big apartment blocks to rural single-family homes. (And yes, everyone is required to have a phone and carry it at all times)
posted by sexyrobot at 8:56 AM on March 25


Second, the location accuracy is on the order of ten meters on each side, which is 10x the "six feet for ten minutes" definition of a close contact.

A little bit of a derail, but that hasn't been broadly true in a long time. GPS.gov says GPS-enabled smartphones are typically accurate to within a 4.9 m (16 ft.) radius under open sky and I've found my iPhone is often accurate to within 2 m. This is not unreasonable from a modern receiver which is capable of incorporating other inputs, especially since "the government commits to broadcasting the GPS signal in space with a global average user range error (URE) of ≤7.8 m (25.6 ft.), with 95% probability. Actual performance exceeds the specification. On May 11, 2016, the global average URE was ≤0.715 m (2.3 ft.), 95% of the time." (ibid)

It may be true that Bluetooth proximity detection is the better way to go for other reasons, but I'd expect any aggregate contact tracing to rely on multiple inputs, and mobile phones have (and have had) better than 10 m accuracy for quite some time now.
posted by fedward at 10:27 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]




For location tracking you could use tricks, statistical predictions, machine learning type stuff to fill in the gaps. For example an algorithm might look at your location data to decide you went into a store for some specific time, separately discover that a cashier in that store during that time was sick, and decide to notify you even without actually detecting that you and the cashier were near each other.
posted by bright flowers at 12:50 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I, for example, have no "permanent trail of location data" from a mobile tracking device because I don't even own a smart phone or anything of the sort

Unless you are not carrying a phone at all, not a smartphone, not a dumbphone, not a tablet, nor anything else, your location is being tracked by your wireless provider. Even that $20 candybar that looks like it came straight out of 2002 is giving up your location.
posted by wierdo at 1:22 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Unless you are not carrying a phone at all, not a smartphone, not a dumbphone, not a tablet, nor anything else, your location is being tracked by your wireless provider.

Because of coronavirus fears I never leave the house and I use a wired phone. I am untraceable. Take that, checkmate.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:30 PM on March 25 [5 favorites]


I will take Ceglowski seriously again when he retracts this nonsense, and not a minute before. Of all the times to throw your hands up and say "well, we might as well use the evil machine for good purposes", he decides to hand the keys to Trump. Coronavirus is scary in large part because of the unknown, but unknown also may mean not as terrible as we're all thinking now. The surveillance machine, however, we know how bad that is, and the idea that it could somehow be marshaled in service of society in general rather than the whims of the shareholders is farcical.

What a sad, pathetic own goal this post is. Shameful.
posted by tonycpsu at 3:34 PM on March 25 [1 favorite]


Location Surveillance to Counter COVID-19: Efficacy Is What Matters (Susan Landau, Lawfare, Mar. 25, 2020)
Currently, phone tracking in the United States is not efficacious. It cannot be unless all people are required to carry such location-tracking devices at all times; have location tracking on; and other forms of information tracking, including much wider use of CCTV cameras, Bluetooth beacons, and the like, are also in use. There are societies like this. But so far, even in the current crisis, no one is seriously contemplating the U.S. heading in that direction.

When one has a hammer—in this case, cellphone location tracking—it is tempting to see nails everywhere. But it is crucial to be honest about what problems the technology can solve. Could technology be built technology that could determine whether someone has been within that six- foot sphere surrounding an exposed person? Potentially, but that technology doesn’t exist now, and there would be huge privacy and civil liberties issues to resolve in building and deploying any such tool. It behooves technologists to be honest about what current technology can and can't do—and not to push miracle drugs when they don't exist.
posted by katra at 6:51 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


It's not Cegłowski's fault that this pandemic happened during Trump's administration. It doesn't even really matter that it's Trump in power now, because this surveillance would be available to any government and you never know what the next election will bring.

We're at a point as a civilization where we require high technology to function with the population size and complexity we have. It's worth arguing whether protection against pandemic for our civilization simply requires invasive surveillance. If so then the only choices are to build the surveillance or to weather these pandemics, possibly to the point where civilization is reduced so far that global pandemics are impossible due to low population or interconnection. If we're going to build the surveillance then it makes sense to build it on top of what we already have, which is what Cegłowski is arguing for.

Personally I think the answer is somewhere between the extremes of handing the government all conceivable data with no oversight, and pretending that things will just work themselves out even if all of us leave our phones at home all the time. Cegłowski is sketching out a middle path here. I agree with the effort.
posted by bright flowers at 6:46 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


As the Lawfare link above notes, the idea of contact tracing at the level of detail needed is not even possible with current tech. If you're going to "but this time it's different" your first principles, shouldn't you at least make sure that the hypothetical can be realized?
posted by tonycpsu at 7:20 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Whether we ought to do a thing isn't the same as whether our current attempt is working. For example the Lawfare article criticizes the inability to do precise tracking in subway stations. If we agree in principle that this sort of tracking is okay, then this is a solvable problem, because we can put sensors in the subway cars, or GPS relays in the stations. That may not be possible to do soon enough for it to be useful for the current pandemic. It might help for the next one. In any case, we can develop an ethical and legal framework now so that we can decide what solutions we would accept.

Also, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, it's possible that statistical analysis can fill in some of the gaps from raw location tracking. We can also combine location data with other data sources, for example the article mentions that South Korea used credit card history and CCTV video. To know if this could be useful, we'd need to turn over large datasets to the tech and government people so they can start analyzing it. We should decide if this is okay to do, even though they may not come up with anything useful.
posted by bright flowers at 8:17 AM on March 26


Maciej's premise is that most of the pieces we need for this are already in place. If they are not, then there is no chance that this system, even if properly assembled and administered, will do anything to help before it's too late. South Korea's success had far less to do with technology and far more to do with jumping on the problem right away. The die has already been cast for community spread in the US far beyond what the most technically ambitious contact tracing program could rein in. This is not a technical problem at this point.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:26 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


I am unconvinced by that Lawfare post, for two related reasons:

1. The inaccuracy of location data under discussion is overstated. The author bases her argument on cell tower triangulation, but (a) cell tower triangulation isn't the only thing at play here, and (b) even if it were used as a fallback in the absence of other data, it's still probably good enough for a "hey, you may have been exposed" message, because …

2. The cost of a false positive (alerting someone with no contact) is lower than the cost of a false negative (no alert after contact). Yes, there is currently a supply shortage leading to limited availability of testing, but given social distancing and supply chain improvements that shortage has to be considered temporary. Once we assume a reasonable supply of testing supplies, the cost of a false positive is that you might get tested when you didn't really need to be; the cost of a false negative is that you might spread the virus before you're symptomatic.

Using the subway scenario above, let's say the worst case situation is true and that all the system could say is that you may have entered the same station at roughly the same time as Patient Zero. In a false negative case (i.e. no notification is sent because there's no data that guarantees you were within contact) you could have been the person they coughed on. Without a notification that encourages you to take precautions (limit further exposure, get a test) you could unknowingly spread the virus before you are symptomatic. In a false positive scenario (you didn't actually enter the station, or you were far enough away in time, distance, or both) you might waste some time and a test kit. Which one of those is worse for you, or for your community?

The same holds true if you went to the same grocery store, even if there's no data on what happened inside the store. Assuming the reasonable availability of test supplies, testing literally everybody at that supermarket in the same timeframe is less expensive, overall, than a super spreading event.
posted by fedward at 8:40 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Cegłowski is looking at the period after the initial outbreak is contained by aggressively shutting down the economy, where we've flattened the curve but are stuck in limbo where we can't resume normal life without the virus exploding again. I can't find a good link but I think I've read that this could last 12-18 months before herd immunity is effective enough. This surveillance would be similar to a vaccine, where it could reduce the limbo period significantly.

So if my unsourced timeline is correct, then if surveillance could be made useful within a year, it would still be a big help if no progress is made on other fronts.
posted by bright flowers at 8:41 AM on March 26


it's possible that statistical analysis can fill in some of the gaps from raw location tracking

It's worth looking at Google Maps Timeline; it does a fantastic job of this. Here's an example of part of a day where I drove around O'ahu. It precisely identifies which places I've been to and for how long. I don't think it currently has any features of finding other people you interacted with (for obvious privacy reasons) but it's not hard to imagine them adding it.

Note this works entirely passively on my cell phone, solely because it has Google Maps installed on it. Works great on iOS and Android. For that matter you might even have it enabled and not realize it.

Cell phones mean it's not hard to track enough people's locations precisely enough to do some contact tracing. This has been amply demonstrated, including applying it to COVID-19 in China, South Korea, and Singapore. The important part of Maciej's essay is considering whether we could and should do it here, in the United States.

(I have to admit it makes me mad that surveillance capitalism is already tracking my location and contacts but that information is not available to save lives through public health.)
posted by Nelson at 9:32 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


The die has already been cast for community spread in the US far beyond what the most technically ambitious contact tracing program could rein in. This is not a technical problem at this point.

This is only true with regard to the ongoing wave of newly discovered cases that were contracted before large swaths of the country began requiring most people to work from home. New infections should be occurring at a significantly reduced rate more amenable to isolation and contact tracing within a few months at most. (how long depends on how compliant people are with social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders)

On the technology side, that GPS doesn't work on a subway is irrelevant. GPS is not and never has been the only input. Cell networks have the interesting property that sites are smaller where population density and/or traffic is highest. Also, basically all smartphones and many dumbphones actually use what Android calls a fused location provider, which takes inputs from the GPS and any of the cell, wifi, or bluetooth radios. (Passively when you have the radio in question toggled off on recent Android unless you turn the feature off) In relatively densely populated areas, Google's location estimate is creepily accurate even without GPS..most of the time. What the cell carriers have isn't usually quite as good, but it still isn't purely GPS based and never has been. Hell, the old triangulation standard could be made to work about as well as GPS on most modern phones since LTE requires knowing the radio propagation delay to the cell sites far more precisely than older standards did.

It's not perfect, but it doesn't have to be to do the job, it just has to be good enough. Perhaps it isn't..that sure seems like a good question for a trusted third party like some academic researchers to figure out rather than our at best somewhat informed speculation.
posted by wierdo at 12:31 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I've gone back and forth on posting this a lot, partially because I'm sure Maciej, and everyone here knows the historical point I'm making, but this conversation during a crisis, I'm going to bring it up, bluntly.

The US government ran a census in 1940 (coincidentally, we're due for one this year). This census data was later used to round up Japanese-Americans and intern them in camps in '42. The census bureau was complicit in this, but this was not acknowledged until decades later in the year 2000. A continent away, the Dutch government in the 1930's built records on people's locations and their religious affiliation. When the Nazi's took over, it turns out that system was quite useful in locating people by religious status.

History tells us this is going to be misused, so ideally any system would be designed to resist eventual abuse as much as possible. That we're in an unprecedented pandemic (for the US) means abrogating our 4th and 5th amendment rights are not as unthinkable they would normally be. A system that can track everyone who was at a particular location and time, like say a synagogue, during services, and follow them to get their home address, is troublesome.

I am sick of sheltering-in-place two weeks in, and none of us know how or when this pandemic is going to end, but hopefully making that bit of history explicit, will temper the desire to build a surveillance apparatus for a bit longer.

Singapore proves that the technology not only exists, but is possible, and effective in the right hands. Whether we want to import the cultural and social aspects that allow that to be useful, we'll have to see.
posted by fragmede at 9:18 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I'm sad to see Maciej succumbing to the behavior he rightfully calls out in others: he clearly knows nothing about US public health infrastructure and being a smart guy who knows about phones doesn't change that.

If he thinks data harvesting is going to be the public health solution to COVID, I would like to introduce him to our underfunded, understaffed, un-networked, un-coordinated-with-healthcare-providers, public health departments. We still don't even have testing, and results are taking 3 days.

Who is going to do anything with this data? What functional central body exists to do something with it? Who will call contacts? Where will we house those who need to quarantine away from family or roommates?

There are so many aspects of our health system that need to be funded, centralized, coordinated and staffed before all this data would be worth shit, I just think he's missing the point
posted by latkes at 11:54 PM on March 26 [5 favorites]


Every part of this is horrifying: i'm guessing palantir has a souped-up version? "This shows the location data of phones that were on a Florida beach during Spring Break. It then shows where those phones traveled. First thing you should note is the importance of social distancing. The second is how much data your phone gives off."

more on singapore's tracetogether: "This is the most benign app for contact tracing I can imagine. But it requires a large fraction of people to be running it on their phones. Geo-location capabilities are strong enough that most governments could do this without the opt-in app. They should prepare a legal consent form for future use that permits aggressive contact tracing using all data available (e.g., from Google or Apple or cell carriers)... Here's a simple system for enforcing home quarantine. If the UK and US governments can't deploy something like this to help us exit from lockdown in a month or two, then our civilization is toast!"
posted by kliuless at 1:50 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


> Singapore proves that the technology not only exists, but is possible, and effective in the right hands. Whether we want to import the cultural and social aspects that allow that to be useful, we'll have to see.

> There are so many aspects of our health system that need to be funded, centralized, coordinated and staffed before all this data would be worth shit, I just think he's missing the point

Why Germany's coronavirus death rate is so much lower than other countries' rates - "The biggest reason for the difference, infectious disease experts say, is Germany's work in the early days of its outbreak to track, test and contain infection clusters... the country's health authorities tracked infection clusters meticulously. When an individual tested positive, they used contact tracing to find other people with whom they had been in touch and then tested and quarantined them, which broke infection chains."
The guidelines have since been expanded and testing has been boosted in recent weeks. The number tested jumped from 35,000 in the first week of March to 100,000 in the second, according to Germany’s medical association. The estimates don’t include tests conducted inside hospitals.

Epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach, a member of the German parliament, noted that the German outbreak started with large numbers of young people — “people who came back from holidays.”

[...]

With more intensive care beds and ventilators than most other European nations and early measures to prevent the spread of the virus, Lauterbach said, he didn’t see Germany turning into Italy or Spain. Still, he has been advocating for wider restrictions.
-Want to Escape a Lockdown? Try Sweden
-The coronavirus situation in Japan is probably much worse than you think
posted by kliuless at 2:22 PM on March 27 [3 favorites]


Government Tracking How People Move Around in Coronavirus Pandemic (WSJ)
The federal government, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state and local governments have started to receive analyses about the presence and movement of people in certain areas of geographic interest drawn from cellphone data, people familiar with the matter said. The data comes from the mobile advertising industry rather than cellphone carriers. The aim is to create a portal for federal, state and local officials that contains geolocation data in what could be as many as 500 cities across the U.S., one of the people said, to help plan the epidemic response.

[...] In the U.S., so far, the data being used has largely been drawn from the advertising industry. The mobile marketing industry has billions of geographic data points on hundreds of millions of U.S. cell mobile devices—mostly drawn from applications that users have installed on their phones and allowed to track their location. Huge troves of this advertising data are available for sale.

The industry is largely unregulated under existing privacy laws because consumers have opted-in to tracking and because the data doesn’t contain names or addresses—each consumer is represented by an alphanumeric string.

Cellphone carriers also have access to massive amounts of geolocation data, which is granted much stricter privacy protection under U.S. law than in most other countries. The largest U.S. carriers, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., say they have not been approached by the government to provide location data, according to spokespeople. There have been discussions about trying to obtain U.S. telecom data for this purpose, however the legality of such a move isn’t clear.
posted by katra at 9:10 PM on March 28


There are so many aspects of our health system that need to be funded, centralized, coordinated and staffed before all this data would be worth shit, I just think he's missing the point

This. In every single crisis US society obsessively grasps for technological solutions to socio-political problems.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:42 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Mobile phone data and COVID-19: Missing an opportunity?: an academic paper by a large number of European and American authors.
This paper describes how mobile phone data can guide government and public health authorities in determining the best course of action to control the COVID-19 pandemic and in assessing the effectiveness of control measures such as physical distancing. It identifies key gaps and reasons why this kind of data is only scarcely used, although their value in similar epidemics has proven in a number of use cases. It presents ways to overcome these gaps and key recommendations for urgent action, most notably the establishment of mixed expert groups on national and regional level, and the inclusion and support of governments and public authorities early on. It is authored by a group of experienced data scientists, epidemiologists, demographers and representatives of mobile network operators who jointly put their work at the service of the global effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
posted by Nelson at 7:49 AM on March 30


I don't think it's fair to criticize Cegłowski here for commenting on technological solutions. He's a technical person and has advocated for technical privacy and security for years. It's his area. Other experts are writing commentary in their own areas of expertise. If Cegłowski laid out his vision of for example reforming healthcare, he could be criticized for having engineer's disease.
posted by bright flowers at 7:57 AM on March 30


> I don't think it's fair to criticize Cegłowski here for commenting on technological solutions.

Who's criticizing him for commenting? Is it okay to disagree with an expert even if we are not ourselves experts? (I do happen to work for a federally-funded cybersecurity R&D shop, but I should not have to flash my credentials to be allowed to offer an opinion on someone's blog post.)
posted by tonycpsu at 8:12 AM on March 30


Who's criticizing him for commenting?

Well Belostomatidae for one, in a comment that was quoted here several times. Perhaps you forgot reading it. Then again expressing deep personal disappointment with an author is the sort of bullshit Internet rhetorical overload that perhaps we should all just forget reading.
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I was referring to the comments on the theme that technical approaches are inappropriate because this is really a political or healthcare problem. Direct technical criticism is fine, not that anyone needs my permission to comment.
posted by bright flowers at 8:36 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


> Well Belostomatidae for one, in a comment that was quoted here several times. Perhaps you forgot reading it. Then again expressing deep personal disappointment with an author is the sort of bullshit Internet rhetorical overload that perhaps we should all just forget reading.

The comment in question reads "I'm astonished and dismayed that Maciej would post this. He's one of the last people I would have expected to support this." That is not in any way criticizing him for commenting, but for the opinion expressed in the comment.
posted by tonycpsu at 8:37 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Yes, but the criticism is framed in the context of "he is bad for even posting this". It's a rhetorical excess that is meant to prevent conversation.

I can't believe I'm arguing about this, I am going to stop.
posted by Nelson at 8:39 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


> I was referring to the comments on the theme that technical approaches are inappropriate because this is really a political or healthcare problem. Direct technical criticism is fine, not that anyone needs my permission to comment.

What if we believe it's really a political or healthcare problem, *and* we know enough to comment on why a "massive surveillance program" as Maciej envisions is a horrible idea?
posted by tonycpsu at 8:44 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]




California, you’re doing a great job staying home, tracking data show. (Except these places). It's a writeup of Unacast's social distancing scoreboard. Unacast has been doing monitoring of people's movements using cell phone data for awhile in a commercial context.

Related: I rushed to post about an academic paper without reading it because honestly I wasn't sure I would get to it. (Sorry). But now I've read the whole thing and it really is excellent. It's a great overview and framework for thinking through how to use cellular data to help with public health in an epidemic. Very thoughtful and readable.

I particularly like the framework of various useful data reports they could generate that stop full short of privacy-busting contact tracking. Specifically:
  • Origin-destination (OD) matrices: the number of people that move from two different areas daily
  • Dwell estimations and hotspots: estimates of particularly high concentration of people in an area
  • Amount of time spent at home, at work, other
  • Contact matrices: face-to-face interactions people have in a day, typically computed by age-group
These are all statistics you could gather in a privacy-preserving way and their publication at city level poses no threat to individual privacy. I think they're all doable now, in a post-hoc fashion, taking data from cell phone carriers. Or from merchants who buy that data (advertisers). Or from companies like Google and Facebook that track their users directly via apps, not through cellular company data.

We could generate these reports now, and even retroactively. I've love to see a day by day analysis of this data just to see if the requested lockdowns are effective. Unacast is more or less doing this but in a limited way and with a limited dataset.
posted by Nelson at 10:05 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


That paper, and your analysis, would have made an excellent post about the use of technology to help augment existing containment and remediation efforts without suggesting we submit to the existing capitalist surveillance panopticon by "bypass[ing] the Federal privacy laws that prevent the government from looking at the kind of data the private sector can collect without restraint". That kind of post is more in line with what I would expect from someone with such a strong record on these topics, not the hard jerk of the steering wheel in the direction of weakened safeguards simply because an existing mechanism for data collection exists and could theoretically be repurposed.
posted by tonycpsu at 10:25 AM on March 30


I'm not criticizing Cegłowski, I'm criticizing America.
posted by aspersioncast at 11:52 AM on March 30


From Trevor Bedford of nextstrain.org fame:

Today, we're standing up a project called NextTrace that aims to enable digital participatory contact tracing and guide #COVID19 surveillance efforts. See a full description here https://nexttrace.org/about or get the summary in this thread. 1/20

...

Trace: We propose a system in which, if an individual is confirmed to have COVID-19, they can register their case in an online platform. If they register, the platform will warn other individuals who were possibly exposed to this infection that they should seek testing. 12/20


This will obviously be a public good when testing is fast and easy. We're just not there, yet, to make it work entirely — even if countries like Taiwan and Singapore are capable.

Dr. Fauci's comments earlier today are on the ball — if we can make it to the fall with fewer deaths, we'll have the public health infrastructure and resources in alignment to bring recurring and new outbreaks under control, with the necessary testing regime in place to get people isolated quickly.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 2:01 AM on April 1


Haaretz: Israeli Doctors Warn Shin Bet Surveillance Actually Hindering Efforts to Combat Coronavirus
Physicians' association claims the security service's use of technology to identify people who have come in contact with carriers of the coronavirus is not providing the right information
posted by Lexica at 10:04 AM on April 1 [2 favorites]


Nelson, I see where my comment might have been ambiguous—but no, I think it's fine for Maciej to opine on this, even if I don't like what he wrote. I do happen to think there might be a bit of Engineer Syndrome at work here, on the epidemiology side, but overall, privacy and technology is his domain.

I'm just disappointed (and frankly shocked) that this is what he came up with.
posted by Belostomatidae at 6:29 AM on April 2 [1 favorite]


Where America Didn’t Stay Home Even as the Virus Spread
The divide in travel patterns, based on anonymous cellphone data from 15 million people, suggests that Americans in wide swaths of the West, Northeast and Midwest have complied with orders from state and local officials to stay home. Disease experts who reviewed the results say those reductions in travel — to less than a mile a day, on average, from about five miles — may be enough to sharply curb the spread of the coronavirus in those regions, at least for now.
An example of using location tracking in aggregate in a way that doesn't harm privacy. The actual dataset of individual cell phones movements is a huge privacy risk, even if it is anonymized, but I'm OK assuming the NYTimes data team is trustworthy enough not to abuse it. (Not so clear on who else has access to this data...)
posted by Nelson at 6:51 AM on April 2




Unified research on privacy-preserving contact tracing and exposure notification for COVID-19
This document has been created to share information across the numerous projects that are working to create mobile apps to help contact tracers fight COVID-19. Many technologists who are designing privacy-preserving apps and tools for this process are new to contact tracing, and want to ensure that their work is solidly grounded in the work that public health professionals are doing around the world. This document aims to collate questions, statistics and experiences to ensure that apps are relevant and well-designed.
posted by Nelson at 8:13 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]


Creating the coronopticon: Countries are using apps and data networks to keep tabs on the pandemic. (Note, 9 days old). A roundup of various countries' attempts to use IT to fight the pandemic, from full contact tracing to simple population statistics. Full of details.
posted by Nelson at 1:34 PM on April 5 [2 favorites]


Here's Google's high level reports: See how your community is moving around differently due to COVID-19 .

New coronavirus contact-tracing app coming to UK ‘within weeks’. Also UK: NHSX working on contact tracing app.

In Germany, High Hopes For New COVID-19 Contact Tracing App That Protects Privacy

I'm not aware of a serious US government effort to do contact tracing. Various research and private groups are talking about doing it. Ron Rivest at MIT wrote a paper a couple of weeks ago A simple proximity-based approach to contact tracing, which he characterizes as "essentially identical to that in the Covid-Watch proposal".
posted by Nelson at 7:53 AM on April 6 [2 favorites]


Creating the coronopticon: Here's to you, graduate English student who landed a job.
posted by mecran01 at 8:04 AM on April 6 [1 favorite]


The United States Needs a ‘Smart Quarantine’. A proposal for a Wuhan-style aggressive and detailed quarantine which would include lots of contact tracing. References Evolving Epidemiology and Impact of Non-pharmaceutical Interventions on the Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 in Wuhan, China, a paper by Xihong Lin et al that talks in detail about what epidemiological measures worked and how the disease was contained.
posted by Nelson at 7:18 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


More from Ceglowski on this (Twitter): "I find it pretty vexing that we built and deployed a totalizing surveillance economy, but are choosing this moment to pursue everyone's pet crypto idea instead of simply sitting down with epidemiologists to have a frank discussion about what we collect, and how they can use it."

It is hard for me to accept the idea that there's nothing I can do about being surveilled so that I can be targeted with advertising, but that there's no way to put this system to work for public health.

Vaguely related and almost certainly entirely useless, but I've been noting any possible contacts I have with rough time and location in my paper planner. I know it's vanishingly unlikely that it would ever be needed or useful for contact tracing, but I like that it gives me an extra place to stop and think about what's actually essential.
posted by asperity at 11:04 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


Just in the past few days, Massachusetts announced a tracing initiative. So... we're getting there, I guess?

(I mean, it's kind of late, we're already in the surge here, but I suppose it could help allow for lifting of lockdown after the surge.)
posted by Belostomatidae at 4:53 PM on April 7


> More from Ceglowski on this (Twitter): "I find it pretty vexing that we built and deployed a totalizing surveillance economy, but are choosing this moment to pursue everyone's pet crypto idea instead of simply sitting down with epidemiologists to have a frank discussion about what we collect, and how they can use it."

This must be early onset Twitter brain, because Ceglowski is clearly capable of thinking about the world without resorting to silly false dichotomies like this, but doing so would undermine his original argument.

Of course everyone who has a financial or ideological stake in something that can be pitched as part of the solution is trying to get involved, but that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't take time to evaluate the full menu of options to work toward a solution that balances our desire for a timely end to COVID-19 with as much preservation of privacy as possible. A reflexive, panicked federal response to a sudden shock to the system is how you end up with another PATRIOT Act. This isn't some situation where the nuclear missiles are in the air and we need to do Jack Bauer shit -- it's a deadly virus that we've been able to reduce the harm of with boring solutions like stay-at-home orders and limiting the number of people in stores.

Improved contact tracing should absolutely be added to our array of tools, but there's no reason it has to come at the expense of privacy, so it's good to see Ceglowski backing away from his original stance of trading existing privacy laws for some mystery box that may or may not result in a fairer fight against the virus. Still, his revised position that he'll accept a more deliberate effort toward a privacy-preserving solution if we also demand more protection from surveillance capitalists makes even less sense than his original argument did. We needed better federal privacy laws before this, and we'll need them after this, but he's the one who explicitly proposed trading privacy for security, so he doesn't get to cast skeptics of that position as the ones being reckless.
posted by tonycpsu at 6:55 AM on April 8


« Older your EVIL, UNETHICAL AND IMMORAL extenuating...   |   You Gotta Know The Territory Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.