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Fighting COVID-19 Is Not an Excuse for Attacking Civil Liberties

We should use digital technology to fight the coronavirus and keep people safe. But that doesn’t mean we should accept ruling elites or private companies wantonly trampling on our civil liberties.

A UV robot cleans the floor near the ticketing windows at Pittsburgh International Airport on May 7, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

Many of the strategies used to fight the spread of COVID-19 are pretty low-tech. We wear DIY face masks, obsessively wash our hands, stand on duct-taped lines spaced six feet apart in the grocery store and outside the post office.

As the pandemic drags on, however, companies are hawking more high-tech solutions, some of which are opening the door to an unsettling future of surveillance and worker control.

The Guangzhou Gosuncn Robot Company has developed a corona-bot, upgrading its 5G-powered police patrol robot to include new features to combat COVID-19. The corona-bot, which has been deployed in public places such as shopping malls and airports in large Chinese cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, uses infrared thermometers and high-resolution cameras to scan the space around it. Anyone within five meters of the bot who has a fever or is not wearing a mask is reported to the police.

The robots have been coupled with a more labor-intensive smartphone strategy developed by Alibaba and a cluster of its offshoots, Ali Cloud, DingTalk, and Alipay. The Alipay Health Code assigns everyone a color (red, yellow, or green) through an app on their phone; individuals wishing to take a taxi, enter a restaurant, get on a train, and so forth are required to scan a QR code with their phone, and only those whose phone screens turn green are permitted to proceed. Colors are determined by place-specific algorithms that software engineers tweak daily in line with shifting government directives on city-by-city risk levels.

While each person’s color is set by an algorithm (fed with a wide variety of public and personal data), a vast workforce was called up and stationed at the entry points of neighborhoods, businesses, government buildings, residential buildings, parks, and public transport stations, manually checking the smartphones of every individual present. As the pandemic subsides in China, businesses and apartment buildings have stopped checking people’s phones in many places — but now that the system is in place cities are able to activate it selectively and quickly as part of a targeted strategy to quell fresh outbreaks.

In the United States, a similarly large-scale surveillance project is in the works at the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS has contracted the data-mining company Palantir to come up with a new platform called HHS Protect Now. While the details of the project are still sketchy, we know that the platform pulls together 187 federal, state, local, institutional, and corporate data sets — everything from supply chain data and health care facility data to test results, demographic statistics, and “private-sector partner contributions of data” — to help “mitigate and prevent” the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s not surprising that Palantir was hired for the job. The CIA-funded company has already been employed by the HHS to ferret out Medicare fraud, and has worked on a wide variety of government, military, and law enforcement projects such as assisting the NSA in its spy game and helping ICE capture undocumented Americans. Palantir’s specialty is sifting through massive quantities of disparate data sources — much of it personal data like emails, social media posts, and smartphone records — to find patterns and connections that might otherwise be missed.

Workplaces eager to reopen, or stay open, are also potentially lucrative purchasers of coronavirus tech. For example, Richtech Systems, which touts itself as a provider of “machine vision solutions” is one of many tech companies offering automated AI temperature-screening systems. Richtech’s device is essentially a tablet with two facial recognition AI wide-angle cameras and a near-infrared temperature sensor attached to a tripod. Employees walk past the device on their way into the building, and anyone flagged with a fever gets a visit from the boss and is sent home.

Perhaps the most fine-tuned coronavirus-inspired tracking is happening on the shop floor. Manufacturing and logistics workers in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States are being asked to wear sensors that track whether they are following social distancing rules. If employees come too close to one another their SafeZone devices beep, warning them to move further apart.

But the matchbook-sized devices, originally designed by a Munich-based start-up called Kinexon to monitor the performance of elite athletes, monitor much more than this. The company claims that because the devices use ultra-wideband tracking technology, they are ten times more accurate than Bluetooth or other wireless trackers. They can measure real-time, fine-tuned location and biometric data such as how much workers are sweating and what their heart rate is throughout the day.

These technologies (and many more) are being developed and implemented in the gray zone between public safety and privacy. In this fraught moment, there is a sense that anything and everything must be done to combat the coronavirus — that conversations about the dangers of surveillance and the importance of civil liberties can be put off until we’ve gotten this thing under control.

The problem is, these conversations often don’t happen once the dust has settled. Practices and technologies introduced during times of crisis quickly become the new normal. In the case of COVID-19 — a disease that scientists predict will plague us periodically for the next few years at least — there is no reason to believe that surveillance practices devised in the present moment will be scaled back anytime soon.

This is a serious problem, because much of the tech being introduced in cities and workplaces has been done so without consent. We are being digitally monitored and profiled in novel ways, but we have little say over how the data generated about us is being used.

This is partly the result of the need to act quickly in the face of widespread death and illness. But the lack of participation by ordinary people in these nascent technological strategies is also a symptom of a broader disregard for the expertise of frontline workers and popular organizations about how best to keep workers and communities safe.

In Massachusetts, for example, Governor Charlie Baker’s “Reopening Advisory Board” includes several CEOs but not a single representative of frontline workers such as nurses and retail workers, not to mention the voices of teachers, immigrant and refugee advocates, seniors, or organized labor.

It matters that ordinary people have a say in how digital strategies are being implemented to fight the pandemic because, if history is any guide, this technology has the potential to hurt workers and poor communities the most.

Consider the SafeZone trackers that workers are being forced to wear to ensure social distancing. What’s to stop companies from insisting that employees don these badges long after the coronavirus threat has passed? After all, the devices provide fine-grained data on how hard workers are working, who they talk to and for how long, when they take a break or visit the restroom, and much more — invaluable information for bosses looking to speed up production, cut jobs, or suppress a union-organizing drive.

We should absolutely use digital technology to fight the coronavirus and keep people safe. But there’s no reason why its use has to be imposed from above without consent or real consideration for our privacy. The time for this conversation is right now.