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Pandemic Tech Raising Red Flags: Privacy Rights Are 'Very Difficult to Recover Once They're Compromised'

04-24-2020
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(Image: Adobe Stock)
(Image: Adobe Stock)

WASHINGTON – For the first time during a pandemic most Americans carry a potential superpower. In addition to your smart phone's many purposes, it could also become a personal bio-lab.

As pressure mounts for states to reopen, technology will soon tell us who's at risk of catching COVID-19. 

In Connecticut, the Westport Police Department tested a drone by DragonFly designed to monitor people's temperatures, heart rates, and respiratory rates. The device can also detect sneezing and coughing in a crowd, but the department grounded its plans after the public raised concerns about privacy.

"An extreme and disgusting overreach of government. Big brother is watching indeed," commented Mitchel Hoffman on the department's Facebook page.

"I am always committed to bringing our community the most innovative solutions to the public safety problems that it faces. Although I see the greater potential of this technology, I will always be responsive and respectful of the concerns of our citizens in every decision that I make," wrote Chief Foti Koskinas in a statement.

Meanwhile, Facebook is offering an opt-in symptom survey asking users to report if they have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. The social media giant is then mapping responses from millions of Americans so hospitals can gauge what they may be in for, should those symptoms become acute.

This comes as Apple and Google develop a system to measure your risk by tracing your contacts. With these future apps, as your phone's Bluetooth comes into contact with other phones, they share strings of numbers. 

If you then test positive for COVID-19, you can send an alert to those phones you came in contact with so they know they're at potential risk.

The developers maintain your identifying information will be protected. 

"It's an amazing thing, but a lot of people have some very big constitutional problems with it," President Trump said at a recent press briefing.

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The White House coronavirus task force is considering the implications. During crises, like after 9/11, Americans often prefer protection over civil liberty, but experts warn it's a slippery slope.

"COVID-19 is very scary, and issues of privacy and things are easy to fall by the wayside but very difficult to recover once they're compromised," explains Dean Cheng with The Heritage Foundation.

As companies reopen their doors, people may feel pressure to use this new technology to maintain their livelihoods.

"There could be employers who say you can't come to work unless you show your app or grocery stores who do the same thing, or maybe you can't get benefits – like unemployment benefits – unless you can prove you have that app," says Sarah Collins, policy counsel with Public Knowledge.

Testifying before senators this month, University of Washington School of Law Professor Ryan Calo said, "A foreign operative who wished to sow chaos, an unscrupulous political operative who wished to dampen political participation, or a desperate business owner who's ought to shut down the competition, all could use self-reported instances of COVID-19...to achieve their goals."

"The problem here is we don't have a federal privacy law, so this all has to come from written agreements with tech companies, with application developers, with governments. What we'd much rather see is these principles enshrined in law," Collins told CBN News.

She says those laws would need to include guarantees that only necessary data is collected and used for a specific purpose, and then deleted.

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And since technology almost always moves much faster than the government, Cheng suggests lawmakers stick to the basics. 

"So what we need to start from are our principles, which hopefully haven't changed, that we value individual freedom, we value privacy, we value rights – we have rights of appeal and things like that," Cheng says.

For lawmakers, there's a delicate balance between keeping people safe and allowing them to be free.

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