COVID Tracking Apps Have Eerie Echoes of Chinese Surveillance System
Aaron Sibarium – MARCH 30, 2021 5:00 AM
President Joe Biden’s COVID team appears to have entertained an electronic test-and-trace program pioneered by the University of Illinois that would have let businesses deny service to patrons based on their health data, a PowerPoint presentation obtained by the Washington Free Beacon shows. The program has eerie echoes of China’s surveillance system, which uses data from citizens’ phones to impose quarantines.
A PowerPoint produced by the school suggests scaling up the university’s intrusive contact tracing system for use across the United States. Its file name, “2020-12-14 Shield Biden Covid Team,” indicates that it was presented to the Biden team in December, amid an ongoing search for solutions to a seemingly insoluble problem: how to stop the virus without stopping the economy? The presentation proffered an answer.
The school’s system uses a mobile app that records test results and Bluetooth data to determine who has been exposed to the virus—and “links building access” on campus to that information. Local businesses have also embraced it, making entry conditional on a “safe status” reading from the app.
The system resembles the one being used in China, where a mandatory app gives each user a “health status”—green, yellow, or red—that dictates access to public spaces. The University of Illinois app likewise divides users into three categories: “yellow” if they’ve recently tested negative, “orange” if they’ve potentially been exposed, and “red” if they’ve recently tested positive. Only students with a yellow status may enter buildings.
The proposal would amount to a more extreme version of the “vaccine passports” being rolled out by airlines and some U.S. cities, which are already causing controversy. Those passports, such as New York’s “Excelsior” app, indicate whether an individual has tested negative or been vaccinated, but not whether they’ve been exposed to the virus based on tracking data. They collect less information and use a less granular classification scheme than the University of Illinois app, meaning they pose relatively fewer risks to civil liberties.
It’s unclear how such a scheme would play with liberal activists. While it represents the sort of ambitious, nationwide COVID response Biden has said he wants, it also threatens to exclude far more Americans from public life than measures like voter ID laws, which progressives have decried as the “new Jim Crow.”
Only 11 percent of Americans do not have a government-issued ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, whereas 19 percent don’t own a smartphone. Widespread adoption of the app could ice nearly a fifth of the United States out of the economy, never mind the polling booth.
Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight, whose founder has called voter ID laws a way to “scare people out of voting,” did not respond to a request for comment.
The app’s selling point is its ability to quickly isolate cases. “We need a SWAT team approach for hotspots,” the presentation reads. “The goal should be to isolate confirmed positives in hours, not days.” It further encourages the universal adoption of the app’s “safe status requirements,” saying they are a “critical aspect of curbing the spread in any community.”
Asked to clarify the context of the presentation, neither the university nor the White House responded to requests for comment.
Digital contact tracing has proven an effective substitute for lockdowns in many countries, allowing them to remain open without uncontrollable spread. Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea all mandated the use of mobile contact tracing apps and were largely spared the tradeoffs Western countries ended up making.
The University of Illinois saw similar success. As of December, its test positivity rate was just 0.43 percent, whereas the rate for the surrounding county was 7.9 percent, according to a graphic in the presentation.
Categories: National News