Should the government increase surveillance to help fight the coronavirus?

March 18, 2020, 3:31 PM UTC

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How comfortable would you be with privacy-invasive surveillance if it could help curb the spread of the fast-infecting coronavirus?

Several countries are already tracking people’s movements in hopes of fighting the pandemic. In addition to its heavy-handed quarantines, China leaned on its telecom companies to figure out who may have come into contact with the virus and how to contact them. The South Korean government is publishing patients’ whereabouts using records such as phone GPS, credit card transactions, and surveillance video. Now Israel has invoked emergency spy powers to track citizens suspected to have the coronavirus.

The U.S. lags further behind—and is mulling policies with caution. The government recently assembled top tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, to consider ways data they collect might be used to rein in infections. Could the information many of these tech companies hoard help predict outbreaks, identify at-risk populations, and manage hospital loads?

The brain trust, which included Apple, IBM, and others, weighed options to bolster public health while balancing privacy concerns. Facebook already uses anonymized and aggregated data for “disease prevention maps,” which it supplies to public health organizations. Google said it did not plan to use its anonymized and aggregated datasets to trace human-to-human transmission of pathogens, claiming the information it has could not be adapted to that purpose.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government passed legislation granting it broader surveillance powers, ostensibly in the interest of protecting citizens. Over time, support eroded.

This is a crisis too. Even Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of Congress’s biggest privacy hawks, gave his conditional blessing to the increased monitoring. He said putting people’s data to use makes sense as long as everyone involved makes sure “to keep this information safe, to delete information once it’s no longer in use, and to ensure it isn’t used against Americans by law enforcement,” as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.

Sometimes, tradeoffs must be made.

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett



Paging Mr. Snowden. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the country's internal security service, Shin Bet, to use cellphone metadata records collected by telecom carriers in an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The idea is to identify people who have come into close contact with known virus carriers and send them text messages urging them to isolate. Privacy advocates worry the government may be overstepping.

In the eye of the beholder. In an effort to distance itself from China, TikTok, the viral video app owned by Bytedance, a Beijing-based tech giant, plans to move all moderation of overseas content outside its home country, the Wall Street Journal reports. In practice, this means people in places like Germany will no longer be monitored by Chinese staff. (The U.S. already had no Chinese moderators, a spokesperson told the Journal.) This is timely, given that a set of rules for TikTok moderators recently leaked to The Intercept included guidance to suppress posts by "ugly" people and to censor political speech. Now that's ugly.

Really, it's nothing. A supposed "cyberattack" that targeted the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is stirring confusion. Bloomberg questionably labelled the attempted disruption as such. The New York Times described the event as a "crude effort by hackers to test the defenses" of government computers, with some U.S. officials pointing to Iran. Ellen Nakashima at the Washington Post said a source at the Department of Homeland Security told her the incident was a nothingburger, basically. It could have been a failed attempt at a distributed denial of service attack, CyberScoop suggested. Whatever it was, the attack didn't seem all that sophisticated.

Add it to the checklist. An Israeli cybersecurity firm that secures code in software development, Checkmarx, is set to be acquired by San Francisco-based private equity firm Hellman & Friedman in a deal valued at $1.15 billion. The previous owner, New York-based Insight Partners, will retain a minority stake. The deal is the latest in a flurry of private equity deals taking over cybersecurity businesses.

Grab the popcorn.


New technologies like high-resolution satellites and A.I.-based image processing will enable Earth-wide surveillance to a degree never before seen. How will this fast-approaching future affect humanity? Vice probes the profound, planetary changes in store for us.

The feeling of epiphanic connection with the planet experienced by astronauts gazing at Earth is known popularly as “the overview effect,” a term coined by author Frank White in his book of the same name. The new geospatial view of Earth, however, may offer something closer to an “overwhelm effect,” as our home world is imaged, valued, and monitored by millions of sensors on thousands of spacecraft orbiting Earth.


Why e-commerce won’t save retailers from the coronavirus by Phil Wahba

Apple store closures extended to ‘until further notice’ by Don Reisinger

Working remotely causes strain on IT—and challenges work-from-home culture by Kate Jacobson

The user experience of ‘teleworking’ evolves with the times by Clay Chandler

Uber suspends shared rides as coronavirus continues to spread by Chris Morris

Online grocers struggle to meet the surge in demand by Jeremy Kahn

If Bitcoin is a 'safe haven' then why does it tank in times of trouble? by Robert Hackett


If you own a private plane, know that investigative journalists may be hot on your tail. Molly Reden at HuffPost dug into Federal Aviation Administration records until she identified a jet she believes may be—emphasis on maybe—owned by Peter Thiel, early Facebook investor, PayPal cofounder, and Trump befriender. She unraveled the (possible) secret by guessing at the name of a shell company to which the plan is registered. It is named Thorondor after a mighty eagle——nay, the mightiest eagle—in Lord of the Rings mythology.

Whoever owns the jet clearly has good taste.

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