There are a lot of opinions being publicized about Apple and Google’s recently announced “Contact Tracing” technology. I feel as though most of these opinions have failed to properly outline the responsibly skeptical interpretation of such a technology which is what I detail in this post.
I first offer a breakdown of Apple’s press release on the technology in layman’s terms. I then describe what this new technology means in relation to our freedom and the virus. Finally I present the actions I have taken to resist this new technology.
Breakdown of the Tech
Since Apple’s press release seems to be deliberately obfuscated to dissuade the general non-programmer public from understanding it — I will lay out its basic points as I understand them. Note - I am not interpreting the press release here, merely outlining it.
- Apple and Google are collaborating on a new technology that uses Bluetooth to trace users’ contact with others using the technology.
- “…user privacy and security” are central to the design
- This technology will be implemented at the OS-level, i.e. the functionality will be coded into your device when updated. App developers can then activate this functionality via their app. The apps will begin to roll out in May.
- In the months after May - this “contact tracing” functionality will be somehow more deeply integrated into Apple/Google devices.
Implications for Our Freedom
This is a profound step towards a total surveillance state. About 80% of Americans now own a smartphone. Assuming that most of those devices are of either Android or Apple flavor, that means that by this summer, the capability will exist to track historical and current location proximity of about 80% of the American population. If we’ve learned anything from the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica fiasco, it’s that this power cannot be wielded responsibly by any centralized organization - it creates a single point of failure for data breaches, human error, human greed, etc.
One of the counterpoints I have seen on various threads, including Hacker News, a community that typically takes a strong stance on privacy, is that the cryptography is secure so we shouldn’t be worried.
It’s true, the cryptography seems very robust. There are three layers to it:
- A unique device key (permanent)
- Another ID on top of that (generated daily)
- Rolling contact event IDs (generated once per Bluetooth interaction)
However this is secondary to the primary shift in technology occurring - without your opt-in, or consent, the technology to monitor Bluetooth interactions between your device and others will be rolled out in a matter of months. We, as end-users, are supposed to trust our benevolent tech overlords to be infallible in their implementation of this cryptographic spec, to be principled enough to never corroborate this data with things like shopping habits, and to not sell the data to other companies. Most of us likely wouldn’t hand this information over to our government, so why are we willing to hand it over to Sundar Pinchai and Tim Cook - who aren’t even elected officials?
What About the Virus?
The willingness of much of the public to give up many of their liberties in the face of the pandemic is depressing. Yes, the pandemic is horrible. Yes, it has killed, and will kill a great deal of people. However, the idea that we need big tech, or big government to bail us out of the situation diminishes the power of the individual.
We, as individuals have to power to conduct ourselves in a way that mitigates our risk of catching and spreading the virus. We can keep a responsible physical distance from others and wear protective equipment. Sadly it seems as though trust of ones neighbor in this country is at an all-time low. Upon speaking yesterday with some family that lives in a nearby city, I discovered that their county has actually just rolled out a smartphone application that allows citizens to anonymously report violations to the government. In my lifetime I can now say that I’ve seen a shift from a society of neighbors trusting neighbors to something akin to a Soviet informant network.
We will never be as perfect as the computer at anything that is quantifiable. The most well-meaning individual may begin to feel a persistent low-mood after weeks of isolation. Does one excursion to see a friend mean that they have failed the nation in its goal of eliminating the virus? What about two or three excursions? And what of religious spiritual practice? Some religious services cannot substitute a Zoom call for physical presence — do we rely on the technocrats, or the government officials, or the public to determine which or how many of these services are permissible?
The computer is incapable of understanding this grey area between right and wrong, yet as we rely on it more and more we become primed to see things in binary “black and white” as the computer does.
What About My Smartphone?
As with anything else I’ve written here, I have no absolute and perfect answer to this question, I can only lay out my own approach.
99% of the time when I leave the house I take my smartphone in case there’s an emergency and I need to call someone. I am now leaving my smartphone at home unless I will need it for some smartphone-specific purpose while out. Luckily, 80%-ish of the population owns a smartphone, so if there is an emergency I can probably find someone willing to lend me theirs for a quick call. Turning off your phone is not good enough. Edward Snowden revealed that your device while off or in airplane mode will still be tracking your geolocation and will upload this data upon powering and finding service again. Best to just leave it.
Just as with my decision to leave social media, I have been called out for being selfish, or irresponsible for deciding to leave my phone at home. I don’t follow this argument as I lived this way up until the early 2000s when I first got a cell phone.
The new “Contact Tracing” technology will diminish our freedom in a way that will be difficult, or even impossible to roll back. While the technology will likely help to track the spread of the virus, it represents the next iteration in a “slippery slope” of shifting power from the individual to the technocrats. Continuing this path will force human psychology into seeing human existence in a more computer-influenced (binary) way which is inherently opposed to the ambiguity that makes up a significant part of the human condition.
A concrete action I am taking to resist this technology is leaving my smartphone at home whenever possible. You may wish to take this action or others. Regardless, a powerful action you can take is to get the word out about this technology and its implications. Only you can decide what is right and wrong for yourself — the Pinchais and Cooks for the world can’t do that for you. Question the dominant narrative, and look at the source materials for yourself, don’t let the Media, Reddit, or Google News make your mind up for you.