Contact Tracing or How governments try to justify the expansion of their spying powers


by Kurt Young

In the 2010’s a new technology called Near Field Communication (NFC) rolled out for public use. This is the technology behind the tapping feature of credit and debit cards. Many privacy advocates believed this technology would be used to monitor the movements of people. They believed that NFC chips would be placed in personal identification cards.  By installing a device in locations across a city the government could monitor people’s movements. Fast forward to 2020.  That fear is now a reality. However, it is not taking the form that privacy advocates originally imagined.

Our cell phones are a powerful tool that allows us to stay connected. Through Wi-Fi we are able to access the internet. This is how we’ve been apprised of police crimes during the current mass protests, as well as incidents that led to this moment.

But cell phones are devices that we carry everywhere we go. Contrary to the fear around NFC technology, it is not the government installing monitoring devices to track our every movement.  Faceless corporations install software to fulfill this role. GPS technology enables the current location of a cellular device to be monitored. However, in the mid 2010’s Google and Apple installed a feature on cell phones called WIFI Scanning. This feature scans all the Wi-Fi routers in your vicinity and it uploads the unique identifying serial number of the routers called a MAC Address, along with the GPS location of that router. This enables tracking of every location where you have ever been. Now, in the throes of an epidemic fright, we have new spying features enabled on our cell phones, called Contact Tracing.

Google and Apple present this feature as one from which you can opt in or out. They claim that all identifying serial numbers are random and that they are not transmitted to the corresponding company servers. This is not a claim we should take at face value. One reason is that the source code for the Contact Tracing has not been publicly shared. Without going into detail about source code, this means that privacy advocates and programming specialists cannot scrutinize these applications to verify that those claims are true. Secondly, one cannot remove these features from your phone. These two points combined mean that you cannot verify that this feature is being enabled on your phone, unknown to you.

The fact that these three features are now a staple of modern cell phones means that Google and Apple know where you are, everywhere you have been and every cellphone that you have passed by (and potentially every person). This is an authoritarian government’s dream. It is time to admit that most western liberal democracies are equipped to be police states. All the information that Google and Apple collected about us through our cellular phones is, beyond doubt, within reach of governments around the world.

U.S. police are now using the contact tracing information on phones to apprehend looters. The Panopticon (the all-seeing eye) is nearly complete. With the inclusion of closed-circuit cameras, we now live in a world where every movement in public spaces, in every metropolitan area worldwide, can be tracked. Even using low quality video, as long as one individual within a crowd can be identified every individual can be identified. The idea of privacy in public spaces is a delusion.

Governments claim that contact tracing has been enabled to aid the fight against COVID-19.  Who believes that once we have successfully overcome this virus that contact tracing will be curtailed? Who believes that governments or corporations, once they enhance their spying powers, would relinquish them?

The unceasing quest to monitor our every movement has led to the creation of devices designed by privacy advocates. There are several options, but few are readily available. Several companies are releasing what is known as Linux phones. Based on the principal of FOSS (free and open source software) Linux phones will provide users with complete control over the applications they have running on their phone.  Two companies are releasing phones (the Librem 5 and Pinephone) with physical switches to enable people to turn off the radio, microphone and camera of their phone. However, these phones are still not in full production. Another option is the use of a custom ROM on an android phone to remove Google services from your phone — which enable Wi-Fi scanning and contact tracing. Again, there is a caveat. The phones capable of implementing this are few and far between.

Regardless whether those options are within reach of everyone around the world, this is not a solution. It is only a tool that we may ultimately need to use to achieve a genuine solution — revolution. Only socialist revolution can free humanity from the chains forged by the oligarchs, the corporations, and the corrupt governments that serve them. As is evident from all the great protests now occurring around the world, the moment of revolution cannot come soon enough.