Episode 8: Coronavirus Curfew

The Federal Republic of Germany has ordered the first curfew in the history of the country. Meanwhile, around the world, people are now being mandatorily tracked by their mobile phones and are spied on in home office isolation.

Having originally said I’d try not to focus on the Coronavirus scare too much, there are nonetheless important updates to deliver to what was discussed during the most recent episode of the podcast. Things are moving very fast. Therefore, I have decided to try and publish two episodes of The Private Citizen this week. This first one will focus on those updates on the Coronavirus situation and I will try to release another episode on a completely different topic later this week.

I hope that works for everyone out there. Please let me know what you think about this and which topics you want to have covered on the show.

With that, welcome to this essential podcast, as defined by the Emergency Authority of the City of Los Angeles.

The German Lockdown

Over the weekend, the German government has essentially passed a curfew , which will remain in effect for at least two weeks. This is the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany that a curfew has been established. Chancellor Merkel has called the situation the worst challenge in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany .

Rules now in effect in Germany:

  • Social contacts have to be reduced to a minimum
  • You have to maintain a distance of 1.50 metres in public at all times
  • If you go out, you can also do so alone or with one other person (exception: if you are out and about with the relatives living with you in your household)
  • You’re only supposed to go out to go to work, to important appointments or because of an emergency – sports activities are allowed as long as you are alone
  • Parties are “unacceptable” – even in private
  • All restaurants and food producing places are closed, only take-away allowed
  • All personal hygiene places are closed (except for services that are a medical necessity)
  • Employers have to implement “all hygiene rules” (whatever that is supposed to mean) and have to provide for “adequate protection”

The Lockdown in Context

In Germany, there are currently 27,436 officially diagnosed cases of COVID-19 (according to lab tests and data by the Robert-Koch-Institut). 113 people have died. That’s about as many people as have died in the Eschede ICE derailment in 1998.

By comparison, the current seasonal influenza epidemic in Germany stands at 145,000 confirmed cases with 247 people dead. In 2019, 3,059 people died in car crashes in Germany.

Who’s Dying of COVID-19?

Italy has by far the worst outbreak and highest number of deaths on their hands. The outbreak originated in the last half of January in its northern Lombardy region. A study by the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS, Italy’s national health institute) of 2,000 people who died from SARS-CoV-2 in this region gives some interesting insights of who is dying:

  • 99% of people who died had one or more than one existing health problem
  • Only 3 of those 2000 fatalities (0.8%) had no history of serious prior health issues
  • 48.5% had three prior health issues, 25.6% had two prior health issues, 25.1% had a single prior health issue
  • More than 34 of people in the study had high blood pressure, 13 had diabetes, 13 had some kind of heart disease
  • The average age of the people who died was 79.5 years
  • The cohort of people most in danger is between 80 and 90 years old

There’s some additional insight from looking at all cases reported by the ISS:

  • In all fatal cases confirmed in Italy until 17 March, only 17 people were under 50 years of age
  • About 70% of fatalities were male
  • Everybody under 40 who died in Italy was male and had a serious previous health issue (cardiovascular disease, kidney problems, serious diabetes)
  • About 300 kids have been tested positive in Italy, there’s not a single case where kids had serious health issues because of the virus
  • Kids often don’t seem to have serious symptoms but are still infectious; Italian doctors suspect they infected many of the older demographic

With this in mind, a respected German economist proposed to stop the curfew, get everybody back to work and isolate only older and high-risk individuals . He said this with regards to the expected extreme toll the current curfew will most likely have on the German economy. Bankruptcies, unemployment and other negative consequences are expected to hurt the social systems of the country for decades to come. This will effect the medical and pension systems in the future. Of course, he immediately got shouted down for this suggestion.

Sidenote

COVID-19 is only classed as a pandemic because the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed its classification of what a pandemic is prior to the H1N1 influenza outbreak. Before 2009, the WHO defined a pandemic as follows:

An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity, resulting in several, simultaneous epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness. With the increase in global transport and communications, as well as urbanization and overcrowded conditions, epidemics due the new influenza virus are likely to quickly take hold around the world.

That text also had quite a staggering outlook on what the next pandemic would look like:

Epidemiological models project that in industrialized countries alone, the next pandemic is likely to result in 57-132 million outpatient visits and 1.0-2.3 million hospitalizations, and 280 000-650 000 deaths over less than 2 years.

At the moment, we are quite far away from that.

Governments are Starting to Sacrifice People’s Privacy

Israel is now tracking all of their citizens by monitoring their mobile phones.

Israel’s government has approved emergency measures to track people suspected or confirmed to have been infected with the coronavirus by monitoring their mobile phones, immediately raising privacy concerns in the country. The cabinet unanimously approved the use of the technology – developed initially for counterterrorism purposes – in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, first raised the issue during the weekend. He said authorities would use the data to notify people who may have come into contact with someone infected with the virus, and also to enforce quarantine orders. In a televised speech on Monday evening, Netanyahu said the cybermonitoring would be in effect for 30 days.

“Israel is a democracy and we must maintain the balance between civil rights and the public’s needs,” Netanyahu said. “These tools will very much assist us in locating the sick and stopping the virus from spreading.”

Using emergency powers, he bypassed what would typically be a process of approval by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. It had looked likely a parliamentary subcommittee would have delayed the rollout.

And Israel isn’t alone.

Several countries have used technology to digitally track the virus’s spread, although with different degrees of invasiveness. Iran has been accused of asking people to download an app alleging to help identify the coronavirus symptoms, but instead it collected location data.

China expanded its already-intense mass surveillance, with telecom operators tracking people’s movements while companies have rolled out facial recognition technology.

In South Korea, the government sent messages out to the public that detail the movements of people who have recently been diagnosed with the virus. They were intended to help identify new cases and those at risk, but have often served to expose embarrassing personal information. While the texts do not give names, they share gender and age details. In some cases, amateur sleuths have been able to ascertain if others may have been involved in affairs or paying for sex, depending on their movements.

Everywhere, the proponents of the total police state are coming out of their holes, smelling people’s fears and trying to use them to push measures through while nobody can think clearly.

The WHO is once again at the forefront of this:

Tracking and limiting the movements of overseas travelers, and others suspected to be COVID-19 coronavirus carriers, has proved an essential tool in controlling the pandemic. That’s according to Professor Marylouise McLaws, a technical adviser to the World Health Organization’s Infection Prevention and Control Global Unit.

Professor McLaws said that, in Singapore, those who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus – particularly those returning from overseas – were subject to “stay-home notices” that required them to self-isolate for 14 days. Confirmed patients were hospitalized, we note.

To enforce the stay-at-home notices, officials told people to enable location services on their smartphones and periodically click on a link sent by SMS. That link reported their location, confirming they were in fact staying at home. Messages must be responded to in a short period of time to prevent people cheating by leaving their phones behind while they ventured outside.

Let that sink in: This is the government REQUIRING you to use a smartphone to be tracked. Remember the U.S. Supreme Court’s Carpenter decision we talked about on episode 3?

McLaws is happy with this approach because the data she’s seen suggests the majority of COVID-19 cases can be traced to international travelers, or those who have come into contact with international travelers. Ensuring those people stay away from the general population for two weeks would stem the further spread of the virus.

“I like technology, and I am surprised that we are not using it on the group who are at highest risk – international travelers – and who are not being checked that they are actually self-isolating.”

Uhhm… Maybe because we’re supposed to be living under the rule of law in a constitutional democracy? With, you know, civil rights? You heard of those, I presume? Unbelievable.

Additionally, there are now calls for mandatory testing of the masses.

The key to South Korea’s success has been speed and an early push toward mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, and mandatory quarantine for anyone near a carrier of the virus. The key to South Korea’s success has been speed and an early push toward mass testing, rigorous contact tracing, and mandatory quarantine for anyone near a carrier of the virus.

Rather than thinking they know best, the U.S. and U.K. governments should be listening and learning from other countries and the World Health Organization, and realizing that East Asian nations are now leading the way.

Here’s some more on how Singapore “flattened the curve” – mostly by flattening people’s freedoms in the process.

Do people not see what is happening when they are praising totalitarian governments like China for “flattening the curve”? They are praising a dictatorship for using its powers effectively. That’s like saying Hitler was very effective at restoring Germany’s infrastructure after World War I – it’s correct, but completely fails to address the humanitarian problems inherent in what happened.

Data Grab by the Robert-Koch-Institut

In Germany, the Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI) can now access cell tower location data of 46 million Germans , provided by the biggest mobile provider Deutsche Telekom. The data is pseudonymised (with the usual problems we discussed previously), but this is an unprecedented measure in a country that’s historically very sensitive to privacy issues – just remember the huge public outcry over Google’s street photography about ten years ago. The RKI is now also helping companies develop apps that are designed to allow better tracking.

For a while, there was talk in Germany to subordinate privacy laws to the IfSG (the Infektionsschutzgesetz, which I analysed in episode 7). That would have meant giving the government the ability to track people’s smartphones in a deanonymised manner. Luckily, privacy experts in the government prevailed.

Datensparsamkeit

As listener Fadi Mansour points out, this situation raises another huge privacy issue that we have to keep an eye on. We are moving a lot more of our social and professional interactions online. And while there are certainly many positive aspects about increased home office times, we have to be aware that we are moving many interactions (and with it information) into a sphere where its is routinely being spied on. We are making ourselves a lot more trackable. It’s a lot easier for corporations and governments to collect data on us in the digital sphere.

Video conferences are just one example among many others (thanks to Niall Donegan for the link):

Zoom has seen a flood of new users as the COVID-19 outbreak forces more and more employees to transition to working from home. Zoom’s big selling point is its near-frictionless video calls. However, new users should be aware of the company’s privacy practices. By looking through its privacy policy and some of its support documents, you quickly discover that Zoom allows your boss to track your attention during calls, shares the copious amounts of data it collects with third parties, and has already had a major security vulnerability.

Whenever you host a call, you have the option to activate Zoom’s attendee attention tracking feature. This feature alerts the call’s host anytime someone on the call “does not have Zoom Desktop Client or Mobile App in focus for more than 30 seconds.” In other words, if you are on a Zoom call and you click away from Zoom, the host of the call will be notified after 30 seconds, regardless of whether you minimized Zoom to take notes, check your email, or respond to a question on another app. This feature only works if someone on the call is sharing their screen. It is unclear whether the attendees of a call are notified if attention tracking is being used on a call.

In these trying times, it seems its more important than ever to practice Datensparsamkeit and to be aware of what data is being tracked where and how. Precious little of the “how to make the best out of being locked at home” articles the tech press is cranking out at the moment tell you anything about the tracking that’s happening with all those amazing apps they are recommending.

Feedback

JPoser says he appreciates all podcasts at the moment, especially ones not about the Coronavirus.

Jonathan found episode 7 very interesting and says “keep up the good work.”

Fadi Mansour writes in again with a boots-on-the-ground report from the Czech Republic and a very salient point:

This is probably a new virus that we still need to learn what it does and how it behaves, so some counter-measures are definitively needed. But on the other hand, what have we kept for something more dangerous? This is probably the fist time in history that almost the whole world has joined in actions that have important economical consequences. But in this case, it’s not something to rejoice about.

And things are moving fast, so in my last feedback I mentioned that our company was experimenting with home office, but now it’s mandatory. At that time, only schools were closed (I have two second grade girls), but now it’s quarantine: all non-essential shops are closed, and you shouldn’t go out unless for important business. There’s even a fine of 3 million Czech crowns for breaking quarantine (almost €110,000). I don’t see that this is being enforced heavily: I didn’t see police or anybody enforcing this, and even when I went to the supermarket, I felt people are more relaxed about it. For me, being a foreigner here, I’m choosing to be more conservative, so, we’ve been at home for the last week, and only a couple of visits to buy stuff.

Back to the subject matter of the episode: The angle of civil liberties and how precedents are now being made with this situation, is important to watch, but there’s another interesting angle to the privacy topic.

Now that “meat-space” work is almost forbidden, everybody is in home office and using online tools for collaboration. More and more personal interactions are being exchanged digitally and are subject to spying and analysis. We are literally living in a Big Brother world now, as the percentage of human interactions that are subject to be spied upon is increasing. Call me paranoid. So, in Slashdot tradition: I, for one, hail our digital overlords!

If you also have thoughts on the things discussed here, 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, Kai Siers, Matt Jelliman, Fadi Mansour, Joe Poser, Rasheed Alhimianee, Mark Holland, Steve Hoos, Butterbeans, Shelby Cruver, Vlad, Dave Umrysh, ikn, Vytautas Sadauskas, RikyM, drivezero and terile.