DESTINATION DYSTOPIA: COVID-19 Has Turned Paradise Into a Privacy Nightmare
A traveler surveillance system in Hawaii is bringing the potential civil-liberties pitfalls of disease detective work into clearer—and more disturbing—focus.
by Albert Fox Cahn and Melissa Giddings, StopSpying.org, Daily Beast, May. 25, 2020 (excerpt)
… In recent weeks, Hawaii has rolled out the so-called “Safe Travels System,” giving officials information on how travelers comply with the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement. On its face, the plan mirrors those imposed at a growing number of national borders—the U.S. included—in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. For jurisdictions with few COVID-19 cases, forcing newcomers to quarantine in hopes of containing the spread of a deadly illness can be a perfectly rational public policy.
But as lockdowns show signs of easing in some states, the system in Hawaii is bringing the potential civil-liberties pitfalls of disease detective work into clearer—and more disturbing—focus.
If you forget to register before you get on a plane to Hawaii right now, you’re in for a show. If you refuse to register or provide a false contact number upon arrival, police can arrest you on the spot. Some authorities are going even further, searching property tax records to verify travelers’ lodgings. Airport personnel roll mobile kiosks from gate to gate, checking phone numbers and addresses, making 7,600 phone calls in just the first 2 weeks to ensure numbers are legit and that people are staying put.
But while Safe Travels may be a practical requirement to enter Hawaii, it’s not a legal one. There’s no law or regulation requiring travelers to use the app. Even the Safe Travels website couches things in voluntary terms: “All persons traveling to or within Hawaii are encouraged to register your trip into the Hawaii Safe Travels System to expedite your exit from the airport.” But when a Washington man recently arrived in Honolulu without a confirmed address or proof he had funds to pay for a place to stay, he was sent back.
For the travelers who do “volunteer” to use the Safe Travels System, it’s not enough to just register with the site. For two weeks, travelers have to check in daily, reporting their health condition and address. Safe Travels will then use travelers’ location data to confirm where travelers are. While Americans are being asked to give sensitive health and location data to Hawaii officials, those same officials are reluctant to share how that data is being used. (The Hawaii Department of Transportation and governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Safe Travels’ FAQ website claims that data is only shared with “authorized personnel responsible for quarantine monitoring and enforcement,” but we have no way of knowing who those people are. And even if it’s just law enforcement agencies— as opposed to private entities—enforcing quarantine, that is no reassurance at all. Effectively, Americans have no way of knowing how much data a state might collect on them, how long it is held, or if Tapiki, the private firm that co-developed Safe Travels, has access to the data. (Tapiki did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
If and when the app gets it wrong, there’s reason to fear users of color will pay the price. As GPS signals are often less accurate in densely constructed urban areas, lower-income travelers might be at higher risk of a false alarm. And it’s completely unclear how individuals will navigate Hawaii’s requirements when they stay in locations without reliable internet or cell service. Many of those most at risk from COVID-19, such as the elderly and communities of color, also lack access to a smartphone. As a result, Hawaii is threatening to turn the digital divide into a criminal offense.
The consequences are enormous. At a time when COVID-19 can easily turn detention into a death sentence, Hawaii authorities have already arrested approximately 20 people for violating quarantine, including a Florida man and an Illinois woman after witnesses saw them with shopping bags. A California man similarly was charged after allegedly traveling from his Hawaiian home to Costco. More recently, a second Colorado tourist was being sought after police learned she had canceled her reservation at the hostel where she registered to stay.
Even when this surveillance web paints an accurate picture of human behavior, it erodes public trust and cooperation at a time when they are needed most. In-state residents must quarantine at the address listed on their government-issued ID, creating an acute risk for many, such as survivors of domestic violence and those living with immunocompromised relatives or roommates. For undocumented Americans, the system creates yet another tool with which people could theoretically be tracked by ICE, coming just months after the Trump Administration reportedly purchased similar location data from commercial vendors.
Hawaii’s case is likely the most extreme to date, but it’s far from unique. In Washington State, civil rights watchdogs expressed alarm that the state was implementing manual contact-tracing requirements without adequate safeguards. Under the state’s effort, not only would 1,400 contact tracers be hired, but businesses would be required to keep a log of every customer they contacted. Across the country, New York City’s top civil rights watchdog expressed similar alarm at the lack of safeguards for data collected by the city and state’s combined contract tracing program, which may hire as many as 18,000 tracers. And at the same time, Silicon Valley’s effort to get into the COVID-19 tracking business has seen sharp pushback from civil rights and immigrant justice groups, including our own StopSpying.org….
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