Despite the serious coronavirus threat, some privacy enthusiasts want us to combat it with one hand tied behind our technological back.
To reopen the economy before a vaccine is developed, we may need widespread "contact tracking" to hold down infections. Security cameras and facial recognition software could be useful here. But cellphone tracking could be particularly important, and less likely to have dangerous side effects.
Cellphones are always connected with towers, allowing tower operators to determine where we are. If cellphone networks notice that a coronavirus-positive person has been near other individuals, these individuals could be warned and perhaps quarantined before they themselves spread the disease.
Contact tracking — identified by experts as critically important — is where some privacy enthusiasts have lost their sense of proportion. Because they fear, correctly, that new technologies might be abused someday, they oppose their deployment right now, when they could be very useful in protecting public health.
Although they did this before the pandemic, cities like San Francisco that banned governmental use of facial recognition software took away a tool that South Korea, Israel, China and other countries have recently put to good use.
The New York Times, especially paranoid about the new technologies, has been running a series of articles — "The Privacy Project" — harping about their potential dangers. In January, one issue included a whole special section about the "smartphone data collection industry" under the title "One Nation, Tracked."
The dangers posed by surveillance are real, but they can be greatly exaggerated. People whose cellphones are tracked, who are photographed on the streets or in stores, and whose identify may be determined by facial recognition software, are in public spaces where they can't reasonably expect to be unrecognized. Or, in the case of cellphone tracking, they may be at home (big surprise!), in a classroom or at work. In these cases, someone (family members, teachers, bosses) already knows who they are.
Some privacy advocates are unhappy that data miners harvest valuable information about us when we use social media. They resent the fact that Facebook and Google make a fortune by selling that information so businesses can direct ads to those most likely to be interested. But users are not deprived of anything they already had, and they get the services of Facebook and Google without having to pay anything. They all remain free to refrain from buying what they see advertised.
Ability to trace an individual's location at particular times could also be useful in identifying robbers, rapists, hit and run drivers and terrorists.
It is true that some people who aren't criminals may not like having their locations monitored. A person cheating on his or her spouse won't appreciate leaving a trail that might alert the spouse. Government computers might be hacked, getting this sensitive information into private hands. But it would be crazy to limit useful tools that are available to the authorities in order to protect people engaged in this kind of thing.
Some of the rules that surveillance could help enforce might be bad laws. But if there are bad laws, the proper remedy is to repeal them, not to hinder the government's general ability to enforce laws or to protect public health.
The New York Times might be rethinking its position. A recent editorial grudgingly admitted that "Cellphones are particularly useful at this moment, when it's crucial to know where infected people have been and whom they've been close to."
It then added, more characteristically, "But giving the government access to all that data carries huge risks."
Of course surveillance could be abused, but we can always tweak the system to reduce its dangers, as experience dictates. On balance, in the age of coronavirus, it is probably a good idea.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. Read Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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