HomeThe Technology 202: Other countries use surveillance to fight coronavirus. Privacy advocates worry the U.S. could follow.TechThe Technology 202: Other countries use surveillance to fight coronavirus. Privacy advocates worry the U.S. could follow.

The Technology 202: Other countries use surveillance to fight coronavirus. Privacy advocates worry the U.S. could follow.

With Tonya Riley

I hope that you’re staying safe and healthy as the coronavirus outbreak escalates. I’ll continue to bring you all of the latest updates on how the pandemic is impacting tech. Email or DM me about how covid-19 is changing your life or business. 

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China, South Korea, and Israel are using highly personalized location data to contain the spread of coronavirus. They’re using sweeping surveillance powers to trace the precise movements of people infected with the virus and alert people of new cases near them. 

But while these tools may be effective at curtailing the spread, they raise significant privacy concerns. Some privacy advocates are concerned that the rapid spread of the pandemic might prompt U.S. policymakers to consider ramping up their surveillance tactics, too. 

They see parallels between the fear surrounding today’s public health emergency and the mood following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when lawmakers broadly expanded the federal government’s surveillance powers to combat terrorism. 

“Part of what scares me most as a civil rights attorney is that these moments of crisis are when norms can really be reshaped,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project at the Urban Justice Center.  

“The lesson of 9/11, the lesson of so many other crises, is that it is very easy to roll back democracy and it is very hard to win it back,” said Fox Cahn, a fellow at New York University law school. “So I am very concerned that we could go down that path because so many people are sincerely scared.”  

Other countries where the norms and laws around surveillance are different from the United States already proved more willing to forgo such concerns about individual rights. The New York Times reported yesterday that Israel moved to tap a secret database of cellphone data to trace the movements of people who contracted covid-19 and identify others who might have interacted with them. South Korea has been sending citizens cellphone alerts when a case of coronavirus is confirmed near them — often with very specific details about the infected person that could compromise their privacy. And China has enacted the most draconian measures, using its sophisticated facial recognition and data from mobile carriers to track down people who slipped lockdowns.  

So far, U.S. policymakers are largely not talking about taking similar steps. Unlike in other countries that regularly use location data for other purposes – or can easily tap into state-run mobile carriers — getting similar powers here would take an act of Congress or cooperation from private sector companies that hold that data, said Sara Collins, policy counsel at Washington-based nonprofit Public Knowledge. 

Right now there’s little political appetite for this in the U.S., Collins said, especially as public awareness of privacy and data security has been on the rise in the years since former Central Intelligence Agency employee Edward Snowden revealed the scope of secret government surveillance programs. 

“With the variety of data breaches we’ve seen from corporate entities, with the Snowden leaks and just a higher and higher mistrust of government over the years, I just don’t know if those same arguments are as persuasive as they were in 2001 or 2002,” Collins said, though she acknowledged it’s hard to predict how the government would respond as the outbreak intensifies. 

Collins said there are serious risks to governments having access to data about people’s movement because it can reveal so much about a person, ranging from their political affiliations to sexuality. “While it might be useful in a public health emergency, just having [location data] there seems to be a very dangerous recipe for a pretty pervasive surveillance state,” Collins said.  

The White House has so far largely relegated the effort to build tech to combat the coronavirus to the private sector. And the bungled efforts so far highlight the stark contrast between the U.S. response and the tech power other nations are dedicating to the coronavirus fight. 

A relatively obscure subsidiary of the Google parent company Alphabet has become the front line of the U.S. fight against the pandemic, my colleagues Douglas MacMillan, Heather Kelly, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Josh Dawsey reported last night. The company, Verily, had been working on a disease screening pilot in California, but was then thrust into the public spotlight after President Trump claimed during a news conference that Google had more than 1,700 engineers working on the response. 

Verily suffered a wave of negative publicity about how the site –  which Trump said would help people determine if they needed to be tested for the virus and direct them to a local testing facility – didn’t live up to the hype. The website it released was actually in beta mode and operating in two Bay Area counties. It was only in English, required people to log in to their Google account and sign a form that gave Verily permission to share users’ data with a range of partners.

“Despite the White House’s insistence on relying on the private sector for solutions, Verily’s effort shows that Silicon Valley has no easy answers to a global health crisis that threatens to overwhelm U.S. hospitals with patients in the coming weeks,” my colleagues write. 

This is of course a far cry from the kind of detailed alerts that say, South Korea is sending, allowing people to understand exactly where people who got infected had been. The avalanche of information is “has led to some awkward moments and now there is as much fear of social stigma as of illness,” the BBC reported

“It’s a really tricky situation because it’s clear that location data tracking has a lot of potential in contact tracing and implementing effective quarantine measures,” Fox Cahn said. But in the U.S., he added, “one thing I’m really concerned about is that we don’t have a legal protections today to stop that data, whether it’s collected by the [Center for Disease Control], state health officials or other entities from being used by other federal agencies such as law enforcement, and most concerning of all [Immigration and Customs Enforcement].”


BITS: False text messages claiming Trump would announce a national quarantine highlight how misinformation is spreading rapidly beyond social networks, my colleagues Craig Timberg, Ellen Nakashima and Tony Romm report. Researchers warn that a migration to SMS and encrypted messaging could make misinformation campaigns more difficult to trace and detect.

Text messaging allows scammers to avoid social networks’ safeguards against misinformation. In this instance, the falsehoods spread via images, and it’s more difficult for tech companies to detect keywords in images. 

The personal nature of direct messages also makes users more likely to trust the information they’re receiving, says Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks disinformation. It’s a return to an older threat,” Brookie said. “We saw it on email. This is not new. We’re going to need to figure out more mechanisms to learn about it more quickly.”

National security officials are investigating whether foreign adversaries are behind the misinformation campaign, which appeared aimed at causing a rush on stores that would disrupt supply chains and create panic.

The White House’s National Security Council publicly debunked the claims on Sunday, tweeting “text message rumors of a national #quarantine are FAKE. There is no national lockdown.” President Trump also addressed the viral text messages yesterday, telling the media that “It could be that you have some foreign groups that are playing games.”

More than one operative may have been responsible for the text messages, one U.S. official told my colleagues, based on the sophistication of the messages.  Both the Pentagon and State Department issued warnings about foreign adversaries allegedly targeting Americans with coronavirus misinformation. 

NIBBLES: Amazon’s warehouse workers are sounding the alarm that the company is not doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus outbreak, my colleagues Jay Greene and Elizabeth Dwoskin report. The company’s sales are surging as customers seek online deliveries at record clip as the coronavirus outbreak transforms daily life. 

In Spain and Italy, warehouse workers have tested positive for the virus. Workers in New York and Chicago told Jay and Elizabeth that Amazon isn’t taking enough precautions as orders rise. Workers were sent home only after they had coughs, some said, and signs were posted advising workers to wash their hands. 

More than 1,500 workers from around the world have signed a petition that calls on the e-commerce giant to do more to ensure workplace safety.“It’s an atmosphere of fear — huge fear right now,” Luismi Ruiz, who works in a facility in Spain where colleagues have been quarantined with coronavirus-like symptoms, told my colleagues. Ruiz wants the company to shut down the facility because he’s concerned it could be a hotspot.

The workers’ warning is taking on new urgency as Amazon plans to hire more than 100,000 new employees in the United States, the Wall Street Journal’s Dana Mattioli reports. The e-commerce giant will also raise pay for all U.S. and Canadian employees in fulfillment centers, transportation, stores and deliveries in the U.S. and Canada by $2 an hour through April. “The tech giant’s decision to go on a hiring spree and boost worker pay shows the dual challenge companies such as Amazon face as they seek to meet surging demand for food and key household items and also take care of employees at the front lines of the pandemic,” Dana writes. As of Dec. 31, Amazon employed nearly 800,000 full and part-time employees.

BYTES: A group of senators led by Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) wants the Federal Communications Commission to fund WiFi hotspots or WiFi devices for students. The senators are pressing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to support students who are unable to access the Internet as the coronavirus pandemic forces thousands of schools to shift to remote, online education. 

“This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency,” the group of 15 Democrats and one independent wrote in a letter to Pai yesterday.

The lawmakers urge the FCC to draw from E-rate, a two-decade-old program that earmarks $4 billion a year in aid to schools and libraries to keep them online at a subsidized price.  It’s just one of the agency’s programs to help bridge the digital divide between Americans with and without home Internet access. About one in five school-aged students lacks Internet access at home, Pew researchers found in 2018.

That gap has become more pronounced as schools and libraries students amid the public health crisis, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The FCC  is “exploring additional ways to help keep students and all Americans connected during the coronavirus pandemic,” agency spokeswoman Tina Pelkey told Tony on Sunday.

Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel  also called on the agency to use E-rate funds to help students during the pandemic. “The FCC could adjust E-rate right now to make sure WiFi reaches students,” she told Tonya.


Gig workers will get paid sick benefits in the form of a tax credit under the House’s Families First Coronavirus Response Act, my colleague Heather Long writes. People who are self-employed but work for another employer, such as Uber and Lyft drivers, are eligible for a tax credit of up to two weeks of sick pay at their average pay and 12 weeks of family leave pay at two-thirds their normal pay. 

The workers must be able to show they complied with the self isolation recommendation, or that they had to care for children or another family member whose school was closed because of coronavirus. Their benefit is capped at $511 per day for paid sick leave and $200 for family leave, or the normal daily income the person typically receives if it is less than those caps. 

The bill is supported by Trump and headed to the Senate. 

– Two gig-worker groups are pressuring California state lawmakers to ensure that tech including Uber, Lyft and Postmates are classifying their gig workers as employees during the coronavirus crisis. They argue these workers are entitled to paid sick leave, benefits and other unemployment protections under a state worker classification law that went into effect earlier this year.

Rideshare Drivers United, which represents more than 10,000 drivers across California, released a petition yesterday demanding the state immediately enforce protections under the law, known as AB5. 

“We’re in a highly exposed position and, without basic rights, we’re in a position to spread the disease,” Rideshare Drivers United’s Nicole Moore told Tonya. “If these companies had done the right thing in California and treated us as employees under the law we would not be in such a horrible situation.” Moore says that many drivers can’t afford to stop working despite health concerns. With demand for the services dropping, many won’t be able to make April rent.

Rideshare Drivers United also called on Uber and Lyft to reallocate the millions of dollars they’ve put toward fighting AB5 to create an emergency drivers relief fund. The group argues the companies are not operating in step with California labor laws, and they called on them to immediately comply. The battle is currently playing out in California court.

The group released the petition just hours after San Francisco instated a nonessential travel ban for 6 million Bay Area residents that exempted using delivery and ride-hailing services.

Gig Workers Rising, another group, slammed lawmakers for failing to protect thousands of ride-hailing drivers and delivery workers exempted from the San Francisco order. 

 “Gig workers have become front-line responders, often driving people to the hospital or delivering food to those who have been quarantined, like the elderly, disabled, or sick,” Gig Workers Rising wrote in a statement yesterday. “Yet these drivers have no sick days, no protective equipment, and no guidance about how this lockdown will affect them.”

Gig Workers Rising sent a letter Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) calling for similar relief measures.

— More news about tech workforce and culture:


— News from the private sector:

– Uber will suspend shared rides in the United States and Canada, my colleague Meryl Kornfield reports on the live blog. Starting today, Uber customers will see “unavailable” next to the Pool option, which lets up to three people share a ride at a discounted price.


— News from the public sector:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:


As misinformation about the novel coronavirus continues to spread, here are some important tips to keep in mind when consuming news about the outbreak. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)


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