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COVID-19, Contact Tracing and U.S. Government Surveillance Concerns: Research

Even in the face of a global pandemic, how far will Americans let government deployed technology intrude on their personal privacy, asked CyberNews.com in a new survey of 12,255 adults living in the U.S.? The short answer: Not very far.

Governments worldwide are using extraordinary, technology-enabled surveillance powers to encircle Covid-19 that could contest the privacy of individuals to shield their personal data from overreach. In the U.S., legislators and privacy advocates are urging Congress to enact a national consumer privacy law to guard against surveillance overreach as governments and tech businesses compile geolocation data to help slow the virus down. Israel is monitoring mobile phone data to track citizens who have Covid-19, for example, and other countries such as South Korea and Singapore are using tools that supply location-based data.

U.S. Data Privacy Concerns

Still, Americans fear that once the contagion ends, the collection and sharing of personal information during the crisis will continue afterwards. Who can blame people, there’s plenty of evidence that it will or could carry on.

Based on the survey data, 89 percent of Americans either support or strongly support privacy rights. However, a mistrust of government seeps into the data: More than half (52 percent) believe that protecting their personal privacy supersedes loosening the reins to help arrest Covid-19’s spread. And, roughly 65 percent disapprove of the government collecting their data or using facial recognition to track their whereabouts.

That last data point is an especially important one. Federal, state and local governments through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are combing through geolocation metadata to understand people’s movements during the pandemic. They hope that analysis will foster a greater understanding of where and how people congregate and move in certain geographic areas and how it might affect COVID-19’s spread. From the data will come a portal available to federal, state and local officials that houses geolocation information on individuals from some 500 cities in the U.S.

Contact Tracing: Some Context

Is that spying or a genuine attempt by the government to contact trace in the face of a global contagion? The study’s findings indicate Americans fear losing their privacy rights over the long term: Some 75 percent are worried that the tracking measures used to contain Covid-19 could lead to widespread government surveillance. And, nearly eight in 10 respondents are concerned that intrusive tracking measures enacted by the government could continue after the pandemic has been neutralized.

Four hypotheticals are posed in the study, two of which affirmed people’s determination to protect their location privacy and the other two taking public health into consideration:

  • Would you grant permission to an app created by a private company to track your location and lower your insurance premium rates as long as you are obeying the government lockdown? A plurality (roughly 43 percent) said they wouldn’t.
  • Would you grant permission to a state-sponsored app to display your location to other residents in your city if you contracted the Covid-19 virus? Nearly half (48 percent) said they wouldn’t.
  • Would you grant permission to a state-sponsored app to analyze location data transmitted by your phone to determine how many people are obeying a government lockdown? Forty-two percent said they wouldn’t but 36 percent said they would.
  • If the government makes it mandatory to track people’s locations in an affected city or region, how would you view people who don’t follow the order? Nearly half (47 percent) said they’d have a negative view of people who ignored the order, while 17 percent said they’d view the recalcitrants in a positive light.

Survey Conclusion

“Even though the US has not yet introduced any new surveillance measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, the results of this survey indicate that American adults are far from complacent when it comes to their privacy,” the survey reads. “However, it’s clear that in the event of a possible introduction of emergency surveillance applications, people in the U.S. expect their privacy rights to be respected, although some fears about the long-term implementation of such measures remain.”

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