Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

They're Watching You

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 14, 2020 --  

The global pandemic has inspired a new generation of systems that watch where people are going and who they are meeting. To date, they are proving more annoying than fearsome.

When residents of Moscow get ready to leave their homes Wednesday morning, they'd better be sure they have their travel permits with them -- even just to get a quart of milk. In a draconian move that might make a Soviet Commissar blush, residents will now face fines of up to $50 if they are caught leaving their house without a digital pass from the government.1 The effort amounts to the most draconian coronavirus lockdown effort in the world.

Under Moscow's rules, residents must go online and apply for a permit to leave home. If granted, a city website will issue a QR code to be displayed on a phone or printed to show to police along with a passport. A permit may be granted for essential work, medical visits, or for more mundane activities like shopping (but only twice per week.) So far, the passes only apply to folks driving or taking public transit -- you may walk a dog within 100 meters of a residence or go to a nearby store.2

Moscow's system is notable for its rigid rules and high tech enforcement mechanisms. But similar rules were imposed by Chinese authorities in Wuhan where an equivalent ticket system allowed one person per household to venture out to go shopping once every three days.3 In most of the Western world, lockdowns (even those deemed mandatory) have very little enforcement, and relay largely on voluntary compliance.

But Moscow's system isn't just about enforcement -- it's also about tracking activities. In order to get a permit, you must confirm your identity along with your specific destination and purpose of travel. In Moscow, Big Brother is clearly watching you.

Yet in other parts of the world, the privacy debate revolves around much less worrisome contact tracing apps. Singapore's Ministry of Health was first to deploy a mobile phone app that uses Bluetooth radio signals to measure how close you get to other app users. If one of those app users tests positive for coronavirus, the Ministry of Health can then send a text to other app users who came near, warning that they may have been exposed.

While the Singapore government has long been known for its authoritarian ways, the app goes to great lengths to stress that it does not track users' specific location by recording coordinates, and that it does not collect any data besides their registration information and a unique identifier tied to the phone. It also claims users must volunteer to share the data it collects -- although local laws compel you to do that should you test positive. In such a case, the government would know everyone an app user has been around for the past few weeks.

Other countries and private companies are scrambling to implement similar systems. Google and Apple announced a joint effort last Friday which seeks to build bluetooth contact tracing into the operating system (in the case of Apple) or into the widely distributed Google Play Services app the case of Android. The companies stress that they are using privacy-friendly encrypted identifiers, and that users will have to consent to the system. But heaven help us if public reaction is anything like the comments at the bottom of articles on the subject. American readers, at least the most paranoid among them, are sensing the beginning of a draconian new world order.

There is a legitimate concern that tracking data collected by these systems might be intercepted or misused. There's also the worry that once such tracking systems are in place, they will never go away, even once the threat of the pandemic subsides.

But folks should temper their fears about these new systems. Cell phones towers already track our movements, perhaps less accurately than Bluetooth allows, but accurately enough for most governmental civil liberties violations. And mobile phone operating systems already have ample permission systems that require user consent to sharing their location information with individual apps. Android and iPhone user permission requests are so pervasive that they actually hinder app functionality. The real concern is that not enough people will ever install and consent to using these systems to ever make them effective for pandemic contact tracing -- let alone violating our privacy.

Yes, Moscow's new travel permits are an outrageous affront to liberty and privacy. But it is in so onerous that it certainly cannot last, probably making it just a short-term outrage. By contrast, contact tracing apps, at least those planned in the West, are so limited that they are hardly worth worrying about at all.


1. Moscow Times, How Do Moscow’s Coronavirus Lockdown Passes Work? April 13, 2020

2. Ibid.

3. RTE, Irishman Who Underwent Lockdown in China Urges Ireland to Take Measures Seriously, March 25, 2020