TPC 27: Concluding the Coronavirus Coverage

As things are slowly returning to some semblance of normalcy in Germany, this episode of the podcast reflects on how our perception of privacy and of our rights and freedoms has changed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On today’s episode of The Private Citizen, I’m trying to conclude my coverage of coronavirus-related privacy and civil liberties issues. I will continue to cover major news in this arena as it happens, of course, but I feel we are rapidly coming to the realisation that the actual issue at heart of these problems barely was an issue at all. I’d like us to move on to a perspective from which we can fight privacy incursions and measures that restrict our freedoms themselves, without having to constantly refer back to the underlying issue.

Entering into “the new normal”, as it has been called, I think we need to concentrate on holding on to the values that have created the peaceful and respectful societies we grew up in. We need to defend these values and for that we need to concentrate on who threatens them and how they are being threatened. I feel we are burning too much energy on the question of why it is happening. So, going forward, I will try to blend issues that have surfaced due to “The Pandemic” in with other, equally important issues that are related to other causes – like corporate greed or tech geniuses creating products without thinking about what they could be used for in the future. So this is hopefully the last coronavirus-specific episode in a while.

But before we get into the episode proper, here’s a quick update on Wirecard.

Wirecard collapses into insolvency
Nach Wirecard-Skandal: Bund will Kontrolle von Unternehmensbilanzen verbessern
Wirecard-Vorstand Marsalek will sich nicht der Justiz stellen

The Current Situation in Gemany

Let’s start the main topic of the show with a quick overview of the situation in Germany as it stands today with respect to SARS-CoV-2 infections, COVID-19 deaths and lockdown-related measures.

COVID-19: Fallzahlen in Deutschland und weltweit

COVID-19 Mass Surveillance

Apple and Google have supplied governments around the world with massive amounts of anonymised data on the social habits of individuals. This came to my attention after the former Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Brendan Murphy, said so in a press conference.

Data harvested by tech giants Google and Apple has illustrated in stark detail the sharp impact of coronavirus containment measures across the country, with the information showing just how effect­ive measures to limit movement have been. Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy released new information on Friday showing the dramatic changes in the way people across the nation had changed their behaviour during the outbreak.

Apple makes mobility data available to aid COVID-19 efforts

Maps does not associate mobility data with a user’s Apple ID, and Apple does not keep a history of where a user has been. Using aggregated data collected from Apple Maps, the new website indicates mobility trends for major cities and 63 countries or regions. The information is generated by counting the number of requests made to Apple Maps for directions. The data sets are then compared to reflect a change in volume of people driving, walking or taking public transit around the world. Data availability in a particular city, country, or region is subject to a number of factors, including minimum thresholds for direction requests made per day.

Apple has built privacy into the core of Maps from the beginning. Data collected by Maps, like search terms, navigation routing, and traffic information, is associated with random, rotating identifiers that continually reset, so Apple doesn’t have a profile of your movements and searches. This enables Maps to provide a great experience, while protecting user privacy.

Google’s COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports

The Community Mobility Reports were developed to be helpful while adhering to our stringent privacy protocols and protecting people’s privacy. No personally identifiable information, such as an individual’s location, contacts or movement, will be made available at any point.

Insights in these reports are created with aggregated, anonymized sets of data from users who have turned on the Location History setting, which is off by default. People who have Location History turned on can choose to turn it off at any time from their Google Account and can always delete Location History data directly from their Timeline.

We also use the same world-class anonymization technology used in our products every day to keep your activity data private and secure. This includes differential privacy, which adds artificial noise to our datasets, enabling us to generate insights while preventing the identification of any individual person.

All of this data is publicly available in CSV format. Even though this data is anonymised and therefore handing it over to the government probably isn’t a huge issue, this whole thing should remind everyone of a much bigger underlying problem: Apple and Google are constantly collecting all of this data. And they know exactly who you are.

As stated by a colleague from The Register:

Apple justified the release by saying it thinks it’ll help governments understand what its citizens are up to in these viral times. The company has also said this is a limited offer – it won’t be sharing this kind of analysis once the crisis passes. But the data is also a peek at what Apple is capable of. And presumably also what Google, Microsoft, Waze, Mapquest and other spatial services providers can do too. Let’s not even imagine what Facebook could produce.

List of further COVID-19 related data sources, see “Surveillance Tools”

Australia even uses sewage to check on people.

Australian researchers have achieved the first step in developing an early warning surveillance system to track COVID-19 prevalence in the community through tracing the presence of the novel coronavirus gene in raw sewage, Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), announced early Thursday, following similar studies in the Netherlands, the U.S, and Sweden.

A proof of concept study was completed last week, using sewage samples from two wastewater treatment plants in South East Queensland, representing populations living in the Brisbane region. The researchers from the UQ and CSIRO found RNA (ribonucleic acid) fragments of SARS-CoV-2 in untreated sewage which would have been shed in the wastewater stream by coronavirus-infected people.

“The hope is eventually we will be able to not just detect the geographic regions where COVID-19 is present, but the approximate number of people infected – without testing every individual in a location. This will give the public a better sense of how well we are containing this pandemic,” he explained.

See also: How Apple and Google’s Social Distancing Maps Work

Feedback

Martin writes:

In terms of actual conspiracies, indeed they do happen and Epstein’s death is a plausible example. As for deliberately ruining someone’s career through accusations later proven false in court, you may be aware this has just been done to Alex Salmond. The fallout from that case has yet to happen and will be very interesting. Then there’s Julian Assange (who I first heard of on Linux Outlaws)!

c.f.: HM Advocate v Salmond

Secondly, you said that we should try to understand why conspiracy theorists believe what they do, and that they are a product of the world we live in (to paraphrase). I agree and the ones I know are quite sad and desperate people looking for control and meaning in their lives, but there comes a point where it crosses over into mental illness.

A conspiracy theorist friend told me that if I registered the birth of my son (now 6 months old), I would be quite literally selling him into slavery. This is such a serious accusation I did a lot of research to find out whether or not there is any truth to it. Most of what he told me was factually wrong, and the ramifications of excluding my son from “the system” would be very serious (cant prove he exists = no bank account, passport, social security, etc.)! This is sadly something Australian aborigines and other marginalised people have to deal with. Why would you deliberately inflict that on your own child?!

This is what my friend said when shown evidence that he is wrong: “All evidence is generated within a system that is not agreed with, therefore all evidence is moot.” That amounts to a complete dismissal of the scientific method, the real world, and me! That’s where I draw the line on understanding these people!

The internet has done a lot of harm by allowing bullshit like this to propagate beyond small-press conspiracy zines. Vulnerable and gullible people are being taken advantage of and democracy subverted. The misinformation campaigns of Cambridge Analytica, Trump, etc. spread worldwide, and I find the effect this has had on several people I know personally very disturbing. It’s a form of collateral damage from someone else’s information war! The thing about the “sovereign citizen” / “freemen on the land” movement is that their ideas do contain some kernels of logic and obviously appeal to libertarians. They’re not all idiots. Apparently the US and Australia regard them as their most serious domestic terror threat, because they don’t recognise any laws and may be armed!

Apologies for the length of the email. I tried to be concise but have a lot to say on this subject! Feel free to talk about as much or as little of this as you want on the show – there are crossovers with the privacy theme but in reality this nonsense is just as much a waste of your time as it has been mine! Real conspiracies such as Wirecard case are much more interesting.

Evgeny Kuznetsov (not the NHL player) has once again written a thoughtful note in response to things I’ve said on the podcast:

On the podcast you’ve made an argument against intentional un-privacy, pointing out that people would believe the accusers if they have a strong voice, even if you can prove (maybe even in court) that you did no wrong. While your point is certainly valid, I’d love to point out a couple of things.

First, people are changing. As you know, I teach at a medical univercity, and I usually teach the doctors (as in, people currently in profession, medical professionals with formal education and at least several years of experience). But I also work with some medical students (as in, people in their early 20s who have yet to complete their formal medical education), and lately I’ve also been invited to teach a couple of courses in another university – to students as well. People are different, of course, and I can’t say “all students are the same” or “all doctors share the same attitude”, but a huge difference between the two groups struck me even when I started my teaching career. Students are – on average – more critical, they tend to doubt my words, and they tend to immediately google things and concepts that seem radical or conflicting to them. If I lay out a concept and the audience asks whether any supporting studies have been done, I usually give reference to publications; doctors tend to look at the reference, see the name of the publication, assess it as “generally credible” and that’s it, only one of 20 doctors would usually actually check the publication I’ve referenced. Out of 20 students, 18 would at least download the publication and skim through it (the other two being asleep during the lecture). They don’t just simply believe when I say “X proved that Y”, they need to check it first to integrate that knowledge into their picture of the world.

Lately I’ve been noticing the same attitude in younger doctors (yeah, people born in 1990s are already experienced medical professionals, still a shock to me ;) – as those former students that grew up with Google at their hands and got used to verifying everything grow into doctors. So, what I see is more and more people don’t simply believe what they are told, even if that comes from someone with authority. (Granted, my sample is not the general populace, but that’s just what I see.)

Imagine if your life was streamed and recorded (both video and audio) 24/7. There would be almost no privacy at all (you could still keep your thoughts private, as well as turn your screens so that cameras don’t see them), but you’d have waterproof evidence of where you have been and what you have done each and every second. No accusations of crimes, harassment, rape, or whatever would ever fly with anyone who botherer to check – and my point is that the new generation does bother to check noticeably more than the old ones.

Trouble is, this would only work with true 24/7 broadcasting and recording. Half an hour off-grid would give your false-accuser power to claim that was exactly the timeframe you’ve commited the wrongdoing in question. The catch here is, even if I and my family were OK with the 24/7 recording of my life, I’d quickly end up with no money or even in jail. Because adding the camera factor would immediately turn what me and the wife do every now and then into the production of pornography. The Criminal Code of Russia says that “illegal production of pornography” is to be punished with a fine of up to two years’ worth of offender’s income, or even up to two years of jail time. And I’m aware of a precedent where the court indicated there was “no law explaining the legal production of pornography, so any such production should be treated as illegal” (Russian courts are lovely that way).

If you have thoughts on the topics discussed in this episode, please feel free to contact me.

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Thanks and Credits

I like to credit everyone who’s helped with any aspect of this production and thus became a part of the show.

Aside from the people who have provided feedback and research and are credited as such above, I’m thankful to Raúl Cabezalí, who composed and recorded the show’s theme, a song called Acoustic Routes. I am also thankful to Bytemark, who are providing the hosting for this episode’s audio file.

But above all, I’d like to thank the following people, who have supported this episode through Patreon or PayPal and thus keep this show on the air: Niall Donegan, Michael Mullan-Jensen, Jonathan M. Hethey, Georges Walther, Dave, Rasheed Alhimianee, Butterbeans, Shelby Cruver, Kai Siers, Mark Holland, Steve Hoos, Vlad, Fadi Mansour, Matt Jelliman, Joe Poser, Jackie Plage, 1i11g, ikn, Philip Klostermann, Dave Umrysh, Dirk Dede, David Potter, Vytautas Sadauskas, RikyM, drivezero, Mika, Barry Williams, Jonathan Edwards, Martin, Silviu Vulcan and S.J.