Liberty Vittert: How much of our liberty and privacy must we sacrifice in war on coronavirus?

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I’m starting to get really scared ... and not of the coronavirus. I’m scared about the loss of liberty people around the world are experiencing as normal life grinds to a halt and we hunker down and keep our distance from each other to stop the spread of this microscopic terror.

Three weeks ago you would think I was crazy if I told you that U.S. borders would be closed; many stores, restaurants, bars, and factories would be shut down; office workers would be teleworking from home; millions of children would be out of school; and many of us would be told to stay in our homes as much as possible and only leave when absolutely necessary.

If an imaginative scriptwriter pitched a movie with this plot just a few weeks ago he might have been told by a movie studio that the idea was too wild and unbelievable even for a fantasy film.

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The amount of personal liberty we have given up in the past two weeks without so much as an “um, are you sure?” is absolutely shocking to me. I’m the same as most people. I didn’t ask. I didn’t think about it. I just did what I was told to do.

But now I’m scared – and we all should be – because the worst liberty and privacy violations are potentially yet to come.

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Look, the coronavirus is a serious health threat – no one can dispute that. So far, more than 275,000 people around the world are known to have been stricken with the COVID-19 respiratory disease caused by the virus. Tragically, more than 11,000 have died.

In the U.S. the coronavirus has been found in more than 19,000 people and more than 240 have died.

All over the world, people are mourning the victims of this unseen killer that most of us had never even heard of until recently.

But as our nation mobilizes the way an earlier generation mobilized for World War II, government is taking actions that are setting some very serious and troubling precedents. We need to start paying very close attention.

Fox News and other news organization have reported that major tech companies are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House to examine possible data use cases for surveilling and tracking the spread of the coronavirus.

What exactly does that mean?

Well, these surveillance tactics include geolocation tracking. That involves looking at the information your cellphone emits so authorities can track your movements over the past few weeks. It’s as if the cellphones millions of us carry in our pockets or purses are acting like the ankle monitors people under house arrest have to wear. They report our every move.

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Surveilling people with the coronavirus to prevent them from transmitting the virus also involves using data from your social media accounts, contacts in your phone, text messages and who knows what else?

And that’s the really worrying part. Who knows what else? This is unchartered territory, with capabilities and possibilities that we really can’t even imagine.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., basically said that it is OK to use these data surveillance options as long as there are certain procedures to keep the data safe. Now, I’m usually a super trustful person, but seriously?

I am going to trust the government and major tech companies with what should be very private information – not just about me, but about my family and friends? What could possibly go wrong?

What about law enforcement? I mean, just off the top of my head this year it was revealed that the FBI made thousands of unauthorized searches of American citizens between 2017 and 2018 from National Security Agency data.

Pick your own favorite example, but regardless, history tells us that we shouldn’t blindly trust as we relinquish our civil liberties.

When our imagination fails us for what our future could be, we can look at what other countries are doing in response to the coronavirus pandemic – all in the name of protecting public health.

Israel has already approved emergency regulations to allow for this type of monitoring technology.

What’s scarier? You don’t even need to be diagnosed with coronavirus for these measures to take effect, you simply need to be “suspected.”

Russia is using facial recognition technology to ensure that infected individuals do not leave their homes or hotels. China is using SenseTime (an artificial intelligence firm) to identify people with elevated temperatures or those not wearing face masks.

What will the U.S. do? Who knows, but we know all the options are on the table.

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And don’t forget, on top of the potential violation of your own civil liberties, there are serious unintended consequences for this kind of surveillance.

If I know that the government is going to get full access to my cellphone and data history, do I even go get tested for the coronavirus? I bet my bottom dollar that a lot of people will choose to not get tested in that case.

While I understand the panic, fear and need for immediate, decisive, and sometimes invasive action on the part of federal and local governments in this specific situation, we need to remember that the past informs the future.

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What happens when the age of coronavirus is over and we are left with some very real and scary precedents of government intervention?

Some imaginative author may need to write a sequel to George Orwell’s novel “1984” about a surveillance state run by a totalitarian regime. Let’s hope the path to such a frightening future doesn’t begin with the reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

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