Like 9/11, the coronavirus pandemic is driving passionate debates on privacy versus safety

Like 9/11, the coronavirus pandemic is driving passionate debates on privacy versus safety
Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado medical professionals established a COVID-19 testing location at the car wash, March 20, 2020 to help limit the possible spread of the virus. The consolidation of patients to this area will help minimize the exposure to COVID-19. If there is concern that you or someone in your family has been exposed to COVID-19, please call (719) 524-2273 first to obtain an appointment. Without an appointment, individuals will be turned away at the test location. (Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexis Christian)

Following al-Qaeda’s vicious terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, many “safety versus privacy” debates took place in the United States. Neocons in the Bush Administration pushed for the Patriot Act, while the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the right-wing Libertarian Party warned that Americans who chose security over liberty would get neither. And the coronavirus pandemic, journalist Mike Giglio explains in an April 22 article for The Atlantic, is now inspiring similar debates.

In some countries, Giglio points out, high-tech surveillance measures are being used to discourage the spread of coronavirus. And civil libertarians are voicing their concerns.

Giglio notes that Stewart Baker, who served as general counsel of the National Security Agency (NSA) in the 1990s under President Bill Clinton and in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under President George W. Bush in the 2000s, has “proposed that America follow the lead of Singapore, which asked citizens to download a contact-tracing app developed for the pandemic. That app records a list of smartphones that pass within range of a user’s Bluetooth signal; then, if someone is infected, the government accesses that list and contacts the people on it — telling them that they might have been exposed to the virus.”

In Mainland China, Giglio observes, authorities “used facial recognition software and the police state’s ubiquitous security cameras, along with a mandatory tracking app, in its containment efforts.” And in South Korea, he adds, “investigators combined location data from smartphones with security footage and records of credit-card transactions in attempts to determine who may have been exposed.”

But Giglio stresses that in the U.S., an app like the one used in Singapore “would raise objections from privacy advocates because it gives the government access to information about a person’s interactions. The app’s effectiveness would also be dependent on the extent to which Americans would use it.”

For his article, Giglio interviewed Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Cohn fears that the coronavirus pandemic, like 9/11, will be used as an excuse for government overreach.

“It gives a lot of opportunity for people to profiteer, for people to take advantage of the crisis to do things that are not necessarily in the public interest, and for people to just make mistakes,” Cohn told Giglio.


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