Contact Tracing

As our nation begins to emerge from the overly hyped COVID-19 pandemic and businesses and recreational venues open, a new front in the fight against the virus is being touted, contact tracing. So critical is this new (basically really old) tool that it is now a requirement for many businesses and houses of worship to open. What is it? At the basic level it is interviewing infected persons to determine who they have been in contact with and getting assistance to those individuals.  If that was it, there wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, it is being taken to a frighteningly new electronic level using our own possessions against us.  Quite bluntly, this level of intrusion on our privacy scares the crap out of me. Once it’s an accepted practice during a pandemic, it will become accepted practice in everyday life. 

Contact tracing itself is an old concept. When someone is diagnosed with an infectious disease, health officials interview the person to determine who they have had contact with in order to get that person the appropriate medical treatment. Think the stereotypical VD (venereal disease) clinic diagnosis and telling the doctor all the people you’ve had sex with. Embarrassing yes, but it helps to stop the spread of the disease. 

To meet the needs for COVID-19, states have already hired thousands of new contact tracers with a projected goal of approximately 100,000 nationwide. This new army of public employees is tasked with tracing the movements and contacts of every individual diagnosed with COVID-19. 

If that was all there was to it, there wouldn’t be a problem. But as tyrannical governors, county, city and health officials around the country have learned, they can infringe on every one of your constitutionally protected rights under the pretext of a “health emergency”. As such, your privacy means absolutely nothing them.  

How they plan on achieving their contact tracing is where the privacy concerns begin. In some areas, a precondition to allowing businesses and houses of worship to open is mandatory recording of everyone who enters.  Name, address, phone number and email addresses must be recorded as well as the time they enter and leave. Houses of worship have been required to compile and turn over lists of all their members.  

For houses of worship, it’s easy to see how this information might be used to infringe on First Amendment rights. Even a cursory look at current events and history will show numerous abuses, suppression and elimination of those who hold certain religious views.  Beyond that, tracking customers of any business can not only lead to abuse but stymie businesses efforts to reopen as potential customers won’t want to give up their personal information just to purchase a product or meal. 

But even this isn’t enough. The CDC’s (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) own guidance is that digital monitoring will be necessary.  The mechanism for this is already in place and simply needs to be enabled. It is of course, the smartphone.  

An estimated 81% of the US population owns a smartphone. Most smartphone users carry their devices with them 24/7, everyplace they go – including the bathroom. We wouldn’t dream of going to the store or even the mailbox without our phones.  Contrast this to a time when we used to drive across the country with nothing but a roll of dimes for payphones. 

Given this reality of our smartphone appendage, it’s easy to see how valuable they are as a tracking device. With GPS and Bluetooth features, your location and who you associated with can be determined anytime, anywhere.  Keep in mind, every byte of data about your location is recorded somewhere. A number of states have already tapped into these features to measure the effectiveness of their Stay At Home orders. While using supposedly anonymized data, they can see how many people are leaving their homes every day and how far they are going. Of course, knowing you left your home isn’t exactly randomized. 

But this new frontier in contact tracing isn’t using anonymized data, it’s looking directly at YOU and your movements.  Apple and Google, the largest providers of cell phones, have joined forces to modify their operating systems and infrastructure to allow digital contact tracing. New apps have been developed by government entities using the Apple and Google toolkits to allow individuals to track their own movements and proximity to other cell phone users. This is currently voluntary in the United States but mandatory in other countries.  Once someone is determined to be infected, it sets off a chain of notifications for anyone who has been near them.  Note that it will not be necessary to have a contact tracing app installed on your own smartphone for you to be tagged and notified of a potential infectious contact. 

Apple and Google have vowed that this is a temporary measure and will only be used for health purposes and for the duration of the pandemic. Once it is over, they have promised the infrastructure will be dismantled. Of course, we all know that no public emergency will ever be over and there will always be another ‘emergency’ down the road.

So what do the health authorities do when they identify a contact of someone who has tested positive?  If the system is working the way it should, medical assistance should be offered in case they are infected.  But that’s not exactly what is going on.  Mandatory testing and 14-day quarantine orders are made with the help of law enforcement and National Guard troops. 

Health departments around the country are constantly threatening and walking back claims they will remove infected individuals, adults or children, from their homes. So far, violators of quarantine orders have been arrested and incarcerated or fitted with tracking devices like common criminals. What we haven’t seen yet is what will happen to individuals who do not cooperate with testing or quarantine orders based solely on either manual or digital contact tracing. 

A look at how other countries are handing digital contact tracing and quarantining provides a glimpse into our future. Taiwan uses their telecom providers to track all those in quarantine and integrates it with their police systems to check if people are out of quarantine. Poland uses a mandatory smartphone app to track those in quarantine. 

China fits everyone coming into the country with a digital wristband and required smartphone app install to track their mandatory 14-day quarantine. China has recently added a color coded “health code” that must be scanned to allow access to public facilities or transit. The exact requirements for a green (likely COVID-19 free), yellow (at risk of COVID-19), or red (likely COVID-19 positive) have not been disclosed but are believed to incorporate the user’s location and their medical and travel history. 

What this boils down to is how much of our privacy, our basic natural rights, we are willing to give up in a health or other public emergency.  Our experiences so far with COVID-19 has shown a huge national tolerance for infringements on just about all our First Amendment, Second Amendment and Fourth Amendment protected rights.  But that tolerance has worn incredibly thin as the nation’s economy and way of life have been shut down for two months. 

If you believe the opinion polls, our nation’s population is equally split over the use of digital contact tracking. Even the CDC notes there will be resistance to this approach, but it may be more accepted in the future.  Personally, I disagree there is that much acceptance to 24/7 government tracking of every place we go and everyone we are in close proximity of. I see this as just another COVID-19 related excuse to infringe on the rights of American citizens. 

Our Constitution and Bill of Rights contain no provisions for suspension of rights in case of a “health crisis”.  If fact, our natural rights take on more significance as tyrannically inclined governments pick and choose what rights can be exercised, and whom among us are allowed to enjoy them. 

Bob

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