As this is penned, the province of Alberta is essentially on lock-down. Once bustling streets are eerily and unsettlingly quiet. The few pedestrians, motorists, or cyclists visible are sometimes masked, sometimes not, but everyone is the picture of quiet sobriety. No more dining out, unless dinner is “take-out”; no more going to places of worship, so critical for some in times of upheaval or crisis. No more access to concerts, sporting events, libraries, galleries, gyms, community centres, and such like, all are closed or cancelled. Worst of all, no more getting together with friends or family. Although this is not forbidden, it is discouraged as we are all told to “stay at home.” Everywhere one goes, be it for a walk or to the latest hot-spot, the grocery store, one observes, from at least six feet away, expressions of fear, sobriety, gravity, sadness. Social order prevails, but the air is permeated with anxiety, suspicion, and fear as if a noxious fume was surely choking us all to death. In a certain sense this is precisely what is happening. The globe’s axis is sideways as the COVID-19 pandemic shakes our health, livelihoods, and economies, along with our very selves right to the core. We have every right and reason to be afraid: not only in Alberta, but all over the world, individuals, families, governments, nations, and commerce are dispensing with political posturing and talking, pondering, pacing, and thinking very seriously and deeply about the COVID-19 crisis and its immediate and long-term consequences. It has been a long time, indeed, since leadership, political and otherwise in this corner of the world, Alberta, Canada, has faced such immense pressure and enormously critical choices. What happens now will dictate much about the future, and serious thought, dialogue, and care are demanded of us all, especially our leaders.
This paper is not about the virus. We all know plenty about that already and without doubt will know plenty more by apple blossom time, considering how quickly this horror is evolving. Here we will discuss the potential loss of privacy as a result of the covid crisis. The virus is one problem, and it is very serious, but privacy is also a critical consideration as we move forward during and after corona virus.
Alberta Government Powers During the Covid Pandemic
In the interest of understanding privacy and civil liberty concerns during the COVID-19 crisis it is important to first understand the state of affairs in this fair province and what Alberta government powers are during this time of crisis. Related to this are two separate entities for which explanations are necessary: “State of Public Health Emergency” and “Provincial State of Emergency”, which is governed by The Alberta Emergency Management Act. As of this writing, the province is operating under both sets of legislation, even though there is some overlap in the parameters of each.
A “State of Public Health Emergency” was declared in the province that can be held for 30 to 90 days (Lawrence 2020); additionally, Lawrence (2020) says this gives the Alberta government the following powers:
- acquire or use any real estate or personal property
- authorize or require any qualified person to render aid of a type the person is qualified to provide
- authorize the conscription of persons needed to meet an emergency
- authorize the entry into any building or on any land, without warrant, by any person
- provide for the distribution of essential health and medical supplies and provide, maintain and co-ordinate the delivery of health services.
- the province’s chief medical health officer can impose or authorize the absence of any ill employees, or those who are caring for a family member ill with COVID-
- Under the act, employers cannot fire, restrict or otherwise discriminate against employees who must miss work due to the corona virus.
- It also enables compensation for anyone whose personal property is damaged or destroyed due to the exercise of any government powers
According to French (2020), during an epidemic, under “State of Public Health Emergency” legislation, the government can also:
- order a hospital to provide quarantine facilities
- order owners of other buildings (such as a hotel or a recreation centre) to provide accommodations for people in isolation or quarantine
- order any public place to close
- postpone a provincial or senate election for up to three months
- order people to be immunized against the disease
- suspend part or all of any provincial legislation that’s not in the public interest
- For “recalcitrant patients,” a medical health officer can also order a peace officer to apprehend a person believed to be ill for testing, treatment or isolation. A patient can appeal their detention to the Court of Queen’s Bench.
- People can also face penalties of up to $5,000 for failing to comply with any part of the Public Health Act.
French (2020) also indicates the following powers the Alberta government can use when a “Provincial State of Emergency”, a different entity than the “State of Public Health Emergency” discussed above is declared:
- Acquire or use any property needed to respond to the emergency.
- Control or prohibit travel to or from any part of Alberta.
- Require qualified people to render aid where needed.
- Distribute essential supplies across the province where needed.
- Order evacuation of people or livestock.
- Authorize entry into any building.
- Fix prices for food, clothing, fuel equipment, medical supplies or other essential
- Conscript workers needed to respond to an emergency.
- Those who violate the act can be fined up to $10,000, sentenced to jail for up to a year or both
As mentioned there is some overlap between the two sets of legislation, particularly around the conscription of workers able to respond and to offer aid and in the commandeering of personal property or real estate, as indicated with using hotels or community centres to isolate those who are ill. This legislation provides fairly broad powers to the Alberta government to “protect the citizenry” during this period of crisis, but it is coming at the high price of our privacy; contact tracing apps, ushered to our smart phone will tell us when it is time to go home for self-isolation- the isolation being mandatory- making our tech our jailer. Apparently citizens are not smarter than phones and do not know when to stay home and rest! Moving forward, let us look at this application and discuss its far reaching consequences for the present COVID-19 crisis and the post- COVID future.
COVID-19 and Privacy Concerns
On April 8, 2020 a Canadian Press article, published in Huff Post Canada stated that Alberta Premier, Jason Kenney, is planning on launching a smartphone application to track whether people are staying home in quarantine (Krugel, 2020). The example Kenney gave is that if someone flies into Alberta from a country with a high infection rate, we would want to be satisfied they are staying home so that they do not spread the virus. The privacy expert quoted points out that many will understand the rationale for such action, but that governments must also be transparent about who is collecting and processing the data, how it’s being used, where it will be stored, and who will have access to it, or the public will be rightfully untrusting. It is also noted that such measures should have a finite time frame (Krugel, 2020). It is not directly stated when such measures will be implemented, but it is hinted that this will occur sometime after May as social distancing is meant to be in place through that month. It is noteworthy that the article quotes Premier Kenney, “I was very clear that we intend to follow the lessons learned from successful countries like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea to more quickly reopen our economy” (Krugel, 2020). On the face of it, the quote innocuously reads as the remark of a responsible, concerned leader in a time of public health crisis, but there is more to it. Let us examine what Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea have implemented to help “stop the spread.”
“Stopping the Spread” in Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea
If the phrase “contact tracing” is not yet buzzing in the reader’s mind, it soon will be, and it ought to because it is the key surveillance tactic being used to “stop the spread” of COVID-19 In Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea, and it is soon to be launched here in Alberta.
In Taiwan, a kind of “electronic fence” using location-tracking makes sure people who are quarantined stay home. The system monitors phone signals, alerting authorities as soon as someone in quarantine leaves home or turns off their phone. If an alert is triggered, the police or other designated authority make a house call or otherwise makes contact within fifteen minutes. Officials also call twice a day to make sure people are not avoiding surveillance by leaving their phones at home (Lee, 2020). This is simply prison to state it baldly. Perhaps there is a case to be made for trampling on people’s freedoms in the interest of public health, and of course, one must bear in mind we are talking Taiwan, not Canada, so we must not be ethnocentric, but regardless these measures certainly seem draconian. Of course Taiwan is considered a “rogue state” by China, and is heavily influenced by China in spite of present democratic leadership (BBC News, 2019). Taiwan is one of the countries Premier Kenney holds as an example, which is rather sobering. Does Kenney think these types of draconian tactics are good for Alberta? More will be written of this further along; for now, let us consider the situation in Singapore.
In Singapore, a contact-tracing smartphone app called “TraceTogether” identifies people, via blue tooth, who are within two meters for minimum 30 minutes and infected with COVID-19. It was developed by the Singapore Government Technology Agency (GovTech) and the Ministry of Health (MOH). Use of the app is not compulsory, but Bluetooth settings, push notifications, and location permissions must be enabled, with the app available for download from both the Apple or Google Play Stores. If a user is infected, the MOH is able to quickly learn which other app users the infected party had contact with so potential cases are nipped in the bud. Users must provide explicit consent to participate in TraceTogether and for their mobile number and data to be used for contact tracing. When the MOH requests it, users send their TraceTogether logs to facilitate the contact tracing process. Until then the MOH and GovTech know nothing about a user’s data. Official tracers contact users when their data is needed by providing a verification code matched with the app code for authentication. Users are then supplied a PIN releasing their data logs to authorities for tracing, but failure to provide the information could result in prosecution (Baharudin & Wong, 2020).
All things considered this is perhaps not a bad option. At least people are allowed to participate or not, which is better than the Taiwanese program, and people still have freedom of movement. Since people opt in themselves, handing over data to authorities is arguably not a problem because the choice to use the app is left to individuals. There are concerns about data mining and privacy with either the Taiwanese or the Singaporean programs, but the Singaporean is certainly less authoritarian and invasive, making it friendlier to Western sensibilities generally. Moving forward now, let us examine what measures South Korea has in place.
In the case of South Korea, two key measures are instrumental in controlling the virus: extensive testing and national tracking of infected people. Once safe testing and treatment sites were ready for action, the country began the massive testing of over 440,000 people. Those testing positive were, and are, quarantined in COVID-19 units for treatment. The testing is a critical step to understand the movement of COVID-19 because it shows hotspots and infection trends, while tracing and identifying those making contact with infected people (Ahn, 2020).
South Korea is particularly distinguished by its COVD-19 contact tracing, which works like this: South Korea’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) operates and oversees a contact tracing system using data from 28 different organizations such as the National Police Agency, the Credit Finance Association, three smartphone companies, and 22 credit card companies to trace the movement of individuals with COVID-19. The system needs only ten minutes to analyze the movement of infected individuals. For people who come in contact with an infected person, the KCDC informs the local public health center near the infected citizen’s home and the health centre sends out notification. When individuals test positive they are treated at special COVID-19 facilities. Those who are asymptomatic are to self-quarantine for 14 days (Ahn, 2020).
Perhaps the South Korean system is effective with COVID-19, but the data mining to manage the contact tracing is extensive; never the less, it is noteworthy that only epidemic investigators at KCDC can access the location information and once the COVID-19 outbreak is over, the personal information used for the contact tracing will, purportedly, be purged (Ahn, 2020). Is that truly the case? How can that possibly be correct considering the aggregate data for the tracing came from 28 different organizations? Are the organizations likely to expunge this data from their aggregates? On the contrary, would not the case be easily made to keep such data in order to maintain the contact tracing system armed and ready for the next round of corona virus or some other threat in the future? As Gandy (2012) indicates, statistical surveillance systems are able to “link names and other unique identifiers to markers or traces from individuals who would otherwise be anonymous…Statistical analysis are dramatically increasing the scope, accuracy, and reliability of these determinations” (p. 126). This means it is accurately noted, as the corona virus data mining shows, that it is oneself being seen and not another by the same name and perhaps very similar characteristics and data trail. “This identification produced by institutional others is a process generally reflecting the exercise of power. Identification or misidentification by others is immaterial, but carries material force in that it can literally change the quality and duration of a person’s life” (emphasis added)(p.126). This simple fact is applicable to all cases of contact tracing and the data mining coupled with it, no matter where in the world it is done; additionally, it is common knowledge that one’s online data trail never goes away. Why on earth would government or industry care to do away with data freely provided when it can be used to control the population, as Gandy suggests, and as actual practise during this pandemic is demonstrating?
The Obsolescence of Privacy?
Considering the sweeping power the Alberta government now wields, all in the name of public safety, and the comment of Premier Kenney in Huff Post Canada, “I was very clear that we intend to follow the lessons learned from successful countries like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea to more quickly reopen our economy” (Krugel, 2020), Albertans better be sitting up straight and thinking very seriously about the balance between privacy and civil liberties on one hand and apparent health and safety on the other. Not that this should be an “either/or” proposition, but the concern is that apparently short term measures, invasive if not downright draconian, implemented to get Alberta through the corona virus crisis could in fact usher in a completely new world, ala Orwell, 1984, or some such facsimile. Of course, this would all be implemented for the safety of the citizenry, right? Maybe not. Edward Snowden remarked in a recent interview that the intelligence community knew it was only a matter of time before a massive pandemic crippled the U.S.A. back when he still worked for the American government at the National Security Agency (NSA) (Vibes, 2020). Snowden furthers, “There is nothing more foreseeable as a public health crisis in a world where we are just living on top of each other in crowded and polluted cities, than a pandemic. And every academic, every researcher who’s looked at this knew this was coming. And in fact, even intelligence agencies, I can tell you firsthand, because they used to read the reports planning for pandemics,” he said (Vibes, 2020), and, “Do you truly believe that when the first wave, the second wave, the 16th wave of the corona virus is a long-forgotten memory, that these capabilities will not be kept? That these datasets will not be kept? No matter how it is being used, what is being built is the architecture of oppression” (Vibes, 2020). Considering Snowden’s notoriety as the NSA whistleblower alerting the world to the extensive spying of the American NSA on its own citizenry, and the fact that he is exiled in Russia points to the truth of his revelations in the first place, and underlines the gravity of his current remarks. Edward Snowden is no half-informed conspiracy theorist brandishing inflammatory comments to alarm a trusting citizenry. He knows his business. Albertans, especially Premier Kenney, would do well to listen.
Yes, the Obsolescence of Privacy
Of course, it might not make any difference what the Kenney government decides because Apple and Google joined forces and will release their jointly built, cross platform contact tracing app in mid-May for the surveillance of about three billion users. This contact tracing app works similarly to those used in Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea with health authorities capable of accessing the information (Gurman, 2020). This is alarming on its own, but the more sinister part is that over the coming months, the app will be built into Apple and Google smartphone operating systems. Users will have to choose to opt-in, at least for now, but if the government maintains its emergency powers, or a second, or sixteenth wave of corona virus threatens the populous, opting in can easily be legislated “for our health and safety”, and with the flick of a pen and the flip of a phone icon, we are live, in person, surveilled everywhere, all the time, “for safety”, and there is nothing to be done about it. Apparently, Snowden is precisely on the mark because with the app built into phones, datasets will most certainly be kept, as he indicated. Also, if there is no intent to keep user datasets why does this kind of invasive surveillance capability need to be built into operating systems when it is just as simple for a user to download or delete an app at will, as needed, if desired?
Loving Tech; Disdaining Privacy
The late Marshall McLuhan, famous for his media theories said, “Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the content of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. The effect of the medium is made strong and intense just because it is given another medium as content” (p. 32). This is particularly true relative to the internet and the technological gadgetry that connects us to it because the internet contains all other media. More importantly, as McLuhan suggests, we are splintered and made numb by the wonderful technological gadgets and baubles that amuse, distract, and apparently make life easier, but there is a price to be paid as we hand ourselves over to our gadgets. “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes, ears, and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left. Leasing our eyes, and ears, and nerves to commercial interests is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation, or like giving the earth’s atmosphere to a company as a monopoly” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 73). In the same work McLuhan later writes, “Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.’ Today he would have pointed to our electric media and said, ‘I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.’ We have leased these ‘places to stand’ to private corporations” (p. 73). This is exactly the situation we are in with our smartphones and the contact tracing app soon coming to Alberta. If it were not so, contact tracing for COVID-19 would not be so popular with Google, Apple, and many country’s governments. Let us not forget that Google and Apple are going to make a veritable killing from the app, and later from the phones we will snatch up with the contact tracing app built in because we are afraid of getting sick and the app will seemingly protect us. We are considering giving away our health related data to keep us safe and well, but this is a step that if not very carefully considered and managed will lead us to hell. Listen to what Harari (2020) says:
As a thought experiment, consider a hypothetical government that demands that every citizen wears a bio metric bracelet that monitors body temperature and heart-rate 24 hours a day. The resulting data is hoarded and analyzed by government algorithms. The algorithms will know that you are sick even before you know it, and they will also know where you have been, and who you have met. The chains of infection could be drastically shortened, and even cut altogether. Such a system could arguably stop the epidemic in its tracks within days. Sounds wonderful, right? The downside is, of course, that this would give legitimacy to a terrifying new surveillance system. If you know, for example, that I clicked on a Fox News link rather than a CNN link, that can teach you something about my political views and perhaps even my personality. But if you can monitor what happens to my body temperature, blood pressure and heart-rate as I watch the video clip, you can learn what makes me laugh, what makes me cry, and what makes me really, really angry. It is crucial to remember that anger, joy, boredom and love are biological phenomena just like fever and a cough. The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs. If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want — be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age. Imagine North Korea in 2030, when every citizen has to wear a biometric bracelet 24 hours a day. If you listen to a speech by the Great Leader and the bracelet picks up the tell-tale signs of anger, you are done for.
Sobering and frightening is it not? We are not there yet, and we do not need to visit the place Harari (2020) describes, but with the contact tracing app coming to the nearest smartphone soon, it is important to consider what the implications are of sharing such data and if we truly wish to do so. Hitler and Stalin did not commit the horrors they did by accident, it happened in small increments that the citizenry was massaged into accepting through various events. It is possible that COVID-19 is a tipping-point event in our own time; therefore, it is our collective responsibility to think and to act with great care because there is more at stake than fever and a phone app.
Ahn, M. (2020). “How South Korea flattened the coronavirus curve with technology”. The Conversation, Canadian Ed. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/how-south-korea-flattened-the-coronavirus-curve-with-technology-136202
BBC News (2019). Taiwan country profile. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-16164639
Baharudin, H & Wong, L. (2020). “Coronavirus: Singapore develops smartphone app for efficient contact tracing”. The Straits Times, Singapore. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/coronavirus-singapore-develops-smartphone-app-for-efficient-contact-tracing
French, J (2020). “Here’s what powers the Alberta government has during states of emergency”. CBC News Edmonton. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/alberta-government-pandemic-statement-of-emergency-1.5513122
Gandy, O (2012) Statistical surveillance: Remote sensing in the digital age. In: Ball, KS, Haggerty, K, Lyon, D (eds) Routledge Handbook of Surveillance Studies, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 125–132. Retrieved from https://0-ebookcentral-proquest-com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/lib/athabasca-ebooks/detail.action?docID=957182
Gurman, M. (2020). “Apple-Google Bring Covid-19 Contact Tracing to 3 Billion People”. Bloomberg. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-04-10/apple-google-bring-covid-19-contact-tracing-to-3-billion-people?sref=StzN0HjU
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Krugel, L. (2020). “Alberta’s Plan to Enforce Quarantine Through Smartphones Stokes Privacy Concerns”. Huff Post Canada. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/alberta-smartphone-coronavirus_ca_5e8e5a81c5b6b371812b778e?utm_source=headtopics&utm_medium=news&utm_campaign=2020-04-09
Lawrence, J. (2020). “Alberta declared a public health emergency over COVID-19. Here’s what that means”. CTV News Edmonton. Retrieved from https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/alberta-declared-a-public-health-emergency-over-covid-19-here-s-what-that-means-1.4856973
Lee, Y. (2020). “Taiwan’s new ‘electronic fence’ for quarantines leads wave of virus monitoring”. Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-taiwan-surveillanc-idUSKBN2170SK
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, NY: New American Library Inc.
Vibes, J. (2020). “Snowden: Governments Using Pandemic to Build ‘Architecture of Oppression’ Surveillance”. The Mind Unleashed. Retrieved from https://themindunleashed.com/2020/04/snowden-governments-using-pandemic-to-build-architecture-of-oppression-surveillance.html