Hello, from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
This was a difficult week here in the U.S. The death of George Floyd is a painful reminder of continued racial injustice in this country. As a white male, it’s not my place right now to write soothing words or to ignore what’s happening. And so instead, I’m listening, and I’m paying attention to writers like Shenequa Golding and New Yorker columnist Jelani Cobb.
On the privacy front, the massive demonstrations across the country in recent days have also generated concern about the use of surveillance technology to track protesters. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been especially concerning as states begin rolling out contact tracing efforts for public health purposes. During a press conference last weekend, Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington likened the health department's contact tracing efforts to that of police efforts investigating arrested protesters.
In response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation pushed back on this "misleading and dangerous" analogy. The EFF's Adam Schwartz charged that it "underlines the need for public health officials to practice strict data minimization — including a ban on sharing with police any personal information collected through contact tracing." He notes that blurring the line between police investigations with contact tracing "can undermine public health," as individuals may avoid testing out of fear that their data could be shared with law enforcement.
Reuters also reported on the almost ubiquitous surveillance of protesters, noting that the demonstrations "have fueled a debate over the growing use of surveillance technology by security forces in protests worldwide and its impact on privacy." The First Amendment right to freely assemble and Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure is challenged as technology such as facial recognition, drones and IMSI catchers removes the veil of anonymity in large crowds, potentially chilling participation. Privacy International's Ilia Siatitsa said, "New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of authorities to monitor protests. They are already capable of conducting generalised, invisible, real-time surveillance of protests, from a distance, without people knowing or consenting."
Such surveillance could have long-lasting implications for public health and our democracy.
These are difficult times, no doubt. There's no way to sugar coat it. But clearly, privacy is playing an important role as we go through these seismic changes, once again demonstrating how the need for privacy is a fundamental part of being human.
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