This is a short note on the mass surveillance for health purposes that’s apparently about to get rolled out in the United States courtesy of Apple and Google.
I don’t like Apple. I don’t like Google. In my view these companies have unfair and anti-competitive strangleholds over mobile app distribution. I don’t like surveillance capitalism. I don’t like how these companies do business.
Most of my professional acquaintances don’t like any of it either.
Neither should you.
But we should all use this app anyway.
I’m cognizant that this app gives everyone the Communism willies because China has similar, non-optional, software which is fully wired into the existing state law enforcement and surveillance system. There are a couple of key, but subtle, differences between the Chinese system and proposed systems in the West that merit consideration.
First, it should be possible to design such a system to ensure that location data is not provided to anyone, including Apple, Google, and the government, as Singapore’s app does.
Second, in the United States, ever since Carpenter v. United States was decided, the government needs a search warrant before it can access cell phone location data from companies like Google and Apple. Nothing short of a ruling from SCOTUS overturning its own decision is going to change that.
Third, most libertarians I know have Facebook and Twitter accounts, meaning they’re already tracked even more than they would be with the Covid contact-tracing app (based on current proposals). If you use Twitter and you’re trying to be anonymous, chances are good that you’ve already failed. If you have the mobile apps you’ve definitely failed. You’re not a super sekrit leet crypto-anarchist h4x0r moving from one underground safehouse to another, trying to stay one step ahead of the NSA, The Matrix-style. You told the world that you exist and where it can find your IP address. You’re probably a few subpoenas away, at most, from being identified.
If you use a mobile phone, it’s particularly easy to figure out who and where you are using IP addresses and cell phone tower locations. Your phones also have unique ad tracking identifiers known as IDFAs which follow you around wherever you go. Furthermore, most people will have location services enabled anyway for apps like Google Maps or Facebook and don’t practice what we preach if it means we don’t have to miss an exit on a long road trip. Or if it means we can check in on social media at a sweet tropical location, together with a posted photograph, loaded with EXIF metadata, to make all our friends back up north jealous. Et cetera.
For 99% of us, the data we are proposing to provide to Google and Apple with this app already exists somewhere and can be obtained with a search warrant (or, for metadata, with a subpoena or 2703(d) order, which includes IP addresses and can be used to approximate one’s physical location).
Fourth, and most importantly, the American initiative is voluntary. And so long as it is voluntary I’m going to chip in.
Libertarianism isn’t about being unhelpful to other people. It isn’t even about being unhelpful to the government. It’s about ensuring people have the widest degree of choice in their actions, and minimizing coercion. It makes room for non-coercive, voluntary, collective actions in all aspects of our lives.
Right now, with virtually all businesses ordered closed and, in some cases, all persons ordered to remain indoors (the latter of which I find constitutionally questionable), we are not living in a very libertarian or voluntary state of affairs.
I want the United States to prove to the world that we can beat this thing not because we were ordered to, but because we chose to. This requires every one of us to put in a little effort now and temporarily, voluntarily, agree to inconveniences – wearing masks, sharing information – so that we can eradicate this disease from our lands.
We need all the help we can get.
So, once this app is released, with considerable reservations, I’m still going to download it. I will do so in the hope that doing so will help my fellow citizens return to work and school, reopen churches and civic groups, and generally get back to the business of living life in the United States.
I don’t like anything about this. Once Covid-19 is beaten, I fully intend to delete the app from my phone. If I find out that Google or Apple is trying to monetize the data, I will delete the app. If the data is unlawfully shared with the government, or if the state tries to make this mandatory, I intend to enforce my rights and I am sure others will do the same.
But now, today, volunteerism is the order of the day, just like it was when many of us placed ourselves into quarantine before being ordered to do so. It’s important that enough of us volunteer so that the app can be effective enough so that another lockdown or other government measures will be unnecessary between now and when a vaccine for this thing is found.
As a closing note, I did Pomp’s podcast this week on constitutional issues arising from Coronavirus. YT link below.