By Phil Williams, 1819 News
I’m that guy that turns off the location setting on my phone when I’m not using it. I am also that guy that very often puts a piece of tape or something similar over the camera on my iPad.
I know, I know – some of you are snickering right now because every app on my phone is probably tracking me anyway. But, hey! I’m not going to make it easy on them!
When I worked in facilities that required my top-secret clearance, I had to lock my phone in a box outside the facility. At one facility where I worked, there were staff whose sole job was to walk through the building with an electronic sniffer device that told them if a cell phone had been brought into the building and how to locate it. After a while, the surreptitious eavesdropping technology had advanced so much that we were told we had to leave cell phones in our cars, in the parking deck.
Let’s face it, we’re being tracked at every turn and it has become a large part of our life. What are you watching on TV? What searches have you made on the internet, or posts made by you on social media? All of that belongs to the realm of the surveillance economy managed by various dot coms.
While we’re on the topic – how about traffic cameras? I will never forget when I was working in the Pentagon back in 2009. One day the mail brought something from an official-looking government address and when I opened it there was a card on which was a grainy image of what was allegedly my car, with an enlargement of what was allegedly my license plate, with a speed that my vehicle was allegedly traveling at the time, which was of course allegedly over the speed limit … all of which occurred allegedly four months prior. There was no way to confront my accuser and no way to know if it was actually true. Just pay the fine or risk getting flagged by another nameless surveillance device later.
Again, surveillance is part of our life now. But how much more should we give away in terms of our personal privacy? Suddenly those HIPAA laws that we passed a few years ago to protect medical information from improper disclosure seem to have fallen by the wayside.
The odd thing is that Alabama, among the reddest of red states, is at the forefront of some of the most recent developments in the surveillance of citizens and the majority of its citizens have no idea. In early 2020, at the onset of COVID, I was asked to be a part of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Coronavirus Task Force. Have you ever heard of it? Likely not. It was not a gainful endeavor. There was very little tasking for the force. Perhaps a half-dozen times a conference call was set up for which we would be allowed the opportunity to hear the governor and the state health officer read from a well-scripted narrative. Sometimes we would get the press releases that were going to go out about the latest proclamations a full 20 minutes before the press got them, with strict instructions that they were to be embargoed and held confidential for the next 20 minutes.
I specifically recall hearing in one of those calls how pleased Gov. Ivey’s office was that UAB had developed, in conjunction with tech giants Google and Apple, a contact-tracing app that would track the movements of everyone who downloaded the app by tracing whose phones they came within six feet of. The app would then transmit back to the mother ship, and the algorithms would coalesce all known movements to see whether the user had been in close proximity to someone with COVID and if so, an alert text would be sent with instructions to quarantine. I was the only one that I can recall on that teleconference who asked a single question about whether its use was mandatory or voluntary on our state campuses and to what extent it had received a legal review.
What I did not know at the time was that the creepy app, which is actually named “Guidesafe,” was funded by a $750,000 grant from Gov. Ivey, using tax dollars sent to Alabama as a part of the federal CARES Act. That’s right. Your tax dollars have paid for what is arguably one of the most Orwellian tracking apps in the world of public surveillance. It has now been trademarked and is being marketed on an international scale, advertising on its website that it was developed at UAB and that it now can be used for event vaccine passports, contact tracing, and for employers to use in requiring proof of vaccination and quarantining protocols.
I find it ironic that our state relief funds were donated by our state governor to one of our state universities to create something that is not otherwise allowed to be used in accordance with our existing state laws.
You may recall that our state legislature saw fit to pass a bill that banned the use of vaccine passports in our state. That bill needs tweaking but at the very least it gives legal justification for someone to tell prying eyes to get out of our business.
At what point is the balance between surveillance and security out of balance? When does it become too much? I would suggest that when you’ve given away your privacy without being asked, it has gone too far. I’m sure there are quite a few well-meaning and somewhat naïve individuals who downloaded UAB’s special surveillance app thinking it was nothing more than just another app … no big deal … it’s like online shopping … well, technically they volunteered when they hit download. But the rest of us? Those who don’t want, didn’t ask, and certainly didn’t volunteer, should we ever be made to do so?
Has COVID made us so afraid of the possibilities that we are willing to sacrifice our realities?
Traffic cameras and tracing apps – where does it stop?
And now I’m going to go check to make sure the location switch on my phone is in the off position…
Phil Williams is a former State Senator, retired Army Colonel and combat veteran, and a practicing Attorney. He has served with the leadership of the Alabama Policy Institute and currently hosts Rightside Radio M-F 2-5pm on WVNN. His column appears every Monday in 1819 News. To contact Phil or request him for a speaking engagement go to www.rightsideradio.org.