TPC 41: The Great Privacy Reset

The release of the UK’s contact tracing app, a major Excel blunder, the current coronavirus situation in Germany and how we are being prepared for the Great Privacy Reset.

This episode of The Private Citizen was live streamed on Twitch. A recording is available on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

In the episode, I discuss the UK’s contact tracing app, changes to COVID-19 measures in Germany and how all of these measures are being used to try to convince us that we need to completely remodel all of society for the greater good. I’ve also received some boots-on-the-ground reports from opposite ends of the globe.

Housekeeping

But before we dig into these topics, there’s some housekeeping to take care of: I had to do some maintenance on the podcast feed, including fixing chapter markers in several episodes. If this caused you to have duplicate episodes or other weirdness in your feed, your podcatcher has problems in dealing with re-published episodes according to the spec. The easiest way to fix this is usally to unsubscribe, delete all episodes, restart the client and then re-subscribe to the feed.

I’ve been asked about merchandise for the podcast in the past. To this end, I’ve created a new premium $30 merchandise tier on Patreon. If you subscribe to that and wait for three payment periods, you’ll get an exclusive TPC shirt!

The Patreon-exclusive TPC shirt
The Patreon-exclusive TPC shirt

COVID-19 Response in the UK

Two weeks ago, the NHS in the UK launched its contact tracing app. Scotland and Northern Ireland apparently have their own apps.

The National Health Service of England and Wales has finally released its COVID-19 contact-tracing app and while it is late to market compared to other nations’ efforts, it appears to have more functionality than many. Contracts to build the app were awarded in March 2020 and by May 2020 VMware was talking up the presence of its container technology in the software’s back end. But by June that effort was abandoned, and the app’s model changed from a centralised scheme that sees an app’s operator create a single collection of data to a decentralised app in which only those who need to know about contacts can see data and only when they need to see it. The revised NHS app, which now uses Google and Apple’s virus exposure API, debuted today on Google Play and the Apple store.

The app performs the usual function of running in the background on a mobile device while constantly seeking out other devices that are also running the software. When two devices find each other, they record the encounter. If the user of a device subsequently reports they are COVID-positive, all users whose devices recorded an encounter with the sufferer are informed. The England and Wales app also include a system to let users check in to venues with a QR code, plus it is hooked into UK government systems that define hotspots so that residents will be told if their postcode becomes a high-risk locale for the virus. Such warnings are accompanied by instructions.

The NHS has published a privacy guide to the app, however, at the time of writing, the article on duration of data retention produced the error: “The requested Knowledge article is unavailable. Please contact your Portal Administrator.”

That may the least of users’ worries given that the UK yesterday reintroduced some restrictions on movement after a recent surge in COVID-19 cases that, as recorded on the national Coronavirus dashboard, have seen daily cases return to levels not seen since May. Folks are told to wear face coverings, depending on the circumstances; those who can work from home should do so; and businesses in the hospitality industry must close at 2200 local time and offer QR code check-ins. The government expects these measures will stay in place until March 2021.

Ironically, these restrictions on movements may make the new app less effective. Other countries have pushed to have at least 60 per cent of their population adopt the app as that level of adoption means it records sufficient interactions to make a difference. But with fewer people out and about, the volume of data gathered by the software declines.

Meanwhile, the app’s risk-scoring algorithm has immediately been criticised.

While the app uses Apple and Google’s contact-monitoring APIs, at its heart is a custom risk-scoring algorithm designed to rank the risk of exposure. Alerts are sent based on the amount of time spent in close proximity with a confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus carrier.

Being within two metres (about 6.5ft) of a sufferer for five minutes is ranked at 300 points. If you’re in medium proximity, defined as between two and four metres (6.5-13ft), the amount of points accumulated is halved to 150. In order for the app to issue an alert, the user needs to cross the threshold of 900 points. In practice, that means that you only need to be in close proximity with an infected person for 15 minutes to receive a warning. For those slightly further away, that’s 30 minutes.

It’s not hard to imagine how you might cross that 900-point threshold, even at a medium distance. You could be on the same bus for half an hour. You could share a workplace – even one with social distancing in place, and desks carefully spaced out. While you can understand why the app’s algorithm would conceivably take a more aggressive approach in isolating those potentially infected, it’s inevitable that false positives will be an ongoing element of this app.

On the testing side, there are also troubles. On Monday, it became public knowledge that the UK’s official numbers of the previous days had been underreported due to an Excel import mistake.

Public Health England admitted on Sunday that the agency has under-reported COVID-19 infections by 15,841 cases in recent days due to a “technical issue.” The missing positive tests were conducted between September 25 and October 2 and have since been added to national statistics, the agency said.

PHE was responsible for collating the test results from public and private labs, and publishing the daily updates on case count and tests performed. In this case, The Guardian understands, one lab had sent its daily test report to PHE in the form of a CSV file – the simplest possible database format, just a list of values separated by commas. That report was then loaded into Microsoft Excel, and the new tests at the bottom were added to the main database. But while CSV files can be any size, Microsoft Excel files can only be 1,048,576 rows long. When a CSV file longer than that is opened, the bottom rows get cut off and are no longer displayed. That means that, once the lab had performed more than a million tests, it was only a matter of time before its reports failed to be read by PHE.

The agency says it will take precautions to make sure an error like this doesn’t happen in the future.

Developments in Germany

In Germany, the federal government and the federal states have decided that it’s illegal to enter wrong personal details into restaurant COVID tracing lists. A practice, that as recently as last month was the clear recommendation of privacy and IT security experts, including from the Chaos Computer Club. Now, if you get caught, there’s a €50 fine. The definite question that remains is who would catch you, though. This policy seems to be a smoke screen as its impossible to enforce, for reasons we’ve previously discussed.

The Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI) now wants to combine the contact tracing app with its health data analysis app. And they want a third app that’s supposed to educate the public about COVID-19. All of this data should be combined and analysed in the cloud with artificial intelligence , the RKI says.

Interestingly, the RKI only reports daily cases in their dashboard . Deaths are not reported per day, but only as an accumulative total. Daily deaths are only published in their daily PDF reports – example for Tuesday, 6 October 2020.

If you dig out this data, you will see that while cases may be rising, deaths from the virus have fallen off the cliff. Yesterday, Germany reported 2,639 new cases, but only 12 deaths. Compare that to an estimated 40 to 50 people who die in German hospitals every day due to medical malpractice.

Germany had 9,546 deaths in total. That means since the beginning of July, we had less than 600 deaths. While the RKI’s number of 3.1% of deaths of all total cases seem to be a lot, keep in mind that this is only confirmed cases. It seems clear that this is only a tiny percentage of people who actually contracted the virus.

The Great Reset

The population’s irrational fear of this virus is now being used to manipulate us into accepting that we need to change our society. At the forefront of this movement is the World Economic Forum and its founder and chairman Professor Klaus Schwab. He argues we need to reshape our political and social systems “for the post-corona era” . The WEF calls this agenda “The Great Reset” and it almost certainly comes with huge privacy implications.

Producer Feedback

The anonymous Canadian chimes in with a boots-on-the-ground report from their home country:

I have been on days off and have not had a chance to listen to your newest podcast yet. I however stumbled across this link that I thought would interest you: Quebec gives police legal tools to enter homes quickly to stop gatherings during COVID-19. CBC is the Canadian government-sponsored news outlet, it costs hundreds of millions of tax dollars a year to keep it going. Think of it as the Canadian equivalent of the old Ministry of Propaganda.

Here are some excerpts of that story:

Quebec Premier François Legault says police in the province’s red zones – regions where COVID-19 cases are surging – will be issuing $1,000 fines to those who violate newly strengthened public health rules. With fees, those fines will top $1,500 and can be issued for gathering in private residences or protesting without a face covering. Quebec reported 838 new cases of COVID-19 but no new deaths Wednesday. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 74,288 confirmed cases and 5,834 people have died in the province.

Beyond the few exceptions, such as for caregivers or romantic relations, house guests are not allowed, Legault said. Police are authorized to demand proof of residency and if residents refuse entry, officers will be able to obtain warrants faster through a new, virtual system that was established in collaboration with the Crown, the premier said. “We had to give the police the means to intervene,” said Public Security Minister Geneviève Guilbault. Normally the process for obtaining a warrant can take a day or two, but that won’t work when police want to break up parties that very same evening, Legault said.

Legault said all gatherings will be banned, even outside in public parks – an activity that has grown more popular in places like Montreal during the pandemic. Legault said people from red zones cannot travel to orange zones to eat in a restaurant or gather in a home. They will face fines if they do. He said restaurants will not be required to verify residency, but police can issue a ticket if they catch people violating the rules. Legault made no mention of roadblocks, something that occurred last spring. However, Guilbault said signs will be posted, warning people they are entering or leaving a red zone.

Our producer continues their feedback:

The province of Ontario on the other hand seems to have lost all thought process. Ontario is bringing back rules reminiscent of lockdown, however, they are not in alignment with what the federal government is doing. This is very well reviewed in this opinion piece. And British Columbia is no better. “Look at the surging number of cases”. However they fail to point out that when you compare the percentage of positive tests to total tests, the percentage was much higher earlier this year vs now. Back when they were doing 10,000 tests a day vs. the 50,000 tests per day now. I don’t see this politically fueled mess going away any time soon. Keep up the good work, and I look forward to listening to this newest episode on my travels tomorrow.

Evgeny Kuznetsov replies to some points I had made about forcing people to vaccinate on an earlier episode:

Well, I don’t really know about Germany, but in Russia and Ukraine (yeah, I know, not the exemplary states freedom-wise) non-vaccinated children are prohibited from going to state-funded schools etc, which is essentially enforcement (and perhaps violating the constitutional right for education, at least in Russia, but our government doesn’t seem to care). I do agree with your general sentiment, but these are very slippery matters we’re talking about here: should my constitutional right to live and preserve health be trumped by a virus-disseminating person’s right for freedom of movement, seeing as how they rode the same subway train I did?

Evgeny continues:

Because the argument is basically very similar: we are essentially forcing people to be vaccinated, taking away their freedom to choose which molecules to put or not to put into their bodies, and we do that for the good of the community, and that’s OK. Now we’re forcing people to stay at home, taking away their freedom to go where they please, and we do that for the good of the community, and somehow that is not OK. I’m a little confused: where, in your opinion, the limit for “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” argument should be?

Fadi Mansour thinks I shouldn’t be apologising for rants.

One point that I wanted to mention: you sometimes apologize or warn of an incoming rant. You have to understand that sometimes, the rant is part of the appeal. So, please keep up the good work and keep the rants coming.

If you too have thoughts on the topics discussed in this or previous episodes, 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, Butterbeans, Mark Holland, Steve Hoos, Shelby Cruver, Vlad, Kai Siers, Jackie Plage, 1i11g, Philip Klostermann, Jaroslav Lichtblau, Fadi Mansour, ikn, Matt Jelliman, Joe Poser, Dirk Dede, David Potter, Mika, Dave Umrysh, Martin, Vytautas Sadauskas, RikyM, drivezero, S.J., Jonathan Edwards, Barry Williams, Silviu Vulcan, MrAmish and Richard Gilson.