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State Senator Warns Big Tech-Involved Testing Could Lurch Us Toward '1984'

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Big tech is not on your side, even in the midst of the coronavirus panic.

This shouldn’t be a controversial statement. It also shouldn’t be a jumping-off point for wild conspiracy theories, but the message ought to be plain: Your privacy is meaningless to these companies. That hasn’t changed just because you’re wearing a mask in public.

Take the case of Verily Life Sciences, a company under the same corporate umbrella as Google.

Verily was, early in the process, touted as a unique tool to screen and schedule individuals who wanted to test for the coronavirus.

The company tested roughly 20 people on its first day and only about 30,000 by April 29, according to The Washington Post. That was out of 5.8 million tests that had been conducted in the country at that point. The rollout has been slow, and the website lists only a very limited number of states where tests are available.

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But we’re not here to talk about Verily’s incompetence. We’re here to talk about its potential malfeasance.

According to a report from Vice, the way Verily takes your data might not be in line with California’s strict privacy laws. It also might not be in line with any reasonable concept of privacy.

Verily relies on a questionnaire to determine whether you can be tested. But this also involves giving the company plenty of details, including your address, phone number and travel history.

On a separate part of their website, it also mentions it can collect web browsing data. Verily is linked to a Google account, too, meaning the company would have access to a lot more of your information.

“What is concerning is that the state of California is partnering with these private companies, I think probably out of desperation, but there is very, very sensitive information that’s at stake,” consumer privacy expert Mary Stone Ross, who helped legislators write California’s privacy law, told Vice.

“There’s no reason why they don’t put safeguards in place to make sure that it’s protected.”

It’s serious enough that even one Democratic state senator, Hannah-Beth Jackson, has compared it to “1984.”

In an April 28 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, Jackson noted that in addition to the partnership with Verily, he had “also discussed plans to partner with Apple and Google in order to use their tracing technology.

“Although these efforts are critical to getting us back up and running, they also raise serious privacy concerns that must be addressed. It is heartening to read that Apple and Google have committed to implement new encryption specifications and to disable the service when the pandemic is contained. However, more needs to be done to truly protect privacy,” Jackson wrote.

She called upon the governor to protect privacy in partnerships like the one with Verily, lest we experience dystopian side effects.

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Jackson Letter by The Western Journal on Scribd

“My hope is that when assessing contracts, partnerships, and processes that due regard is given to transparency, disclosure, consent, and, ultimately, the protection of this sensitive information,” Jackson said.

“At the forefront of this effort must be the recognition that this information is NOT a commodity to be shared or sold to the highest bidder — or to any bidder, for that matter. We must not lurch toward the dystopian world of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ or George Orwell’s ‘1984’ as the price of protecting our health and safety — nor do we have to.”

Meanwhile, Ross told Vice she was concerned that if big tech got involved in contact tracing — which it will almost certainly have to if it’s to work — it had already blown its credibility with the general public.

“The way for contact tracing to work properly is that people have to trust the system,” she said.

“Like, you want them to disclose a lot of information. And so if, if there’s no trust there, then I think it’ll be limited in its effectiveness.”

Do you think Google should be involved in contact tracing?

This is a rare issue where you can find Democrats and Republicans in concord. Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, a noted big-tech hawk, sent an April 21 letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Apple CEO Tim Cook in which he noted that the “possible implications this project could have for privacy are alarming.”

“For example, your materials state that the data necessary for this project will be anonymized. But anonymity in data is notoriously unstable. Data typically can be reidentified simply by cross-referencing it with another data set. Pairing the data from this project with the GPS data that both your companies already collect could readily reveal individual identities.”

Verily spokeswoman Carolyn Wang insisted the company was in compliance with the law, pointing to the privacy statement on its website.

“We disclose all of the categories of personal information collected in detail in the privacy policy,” Wang said. “We’re not collecting any data beyond that.”

It’s difficult to trust any company closely associated with Google, however.

This is a company that partnered with China to develop a highly censored search engine for the communist country under a program called “Project Dragonfly.”

Google not only tracks mass amounts of geolocation data, but it can also give it to the police under what’s known as a “geofence warrant.” Essentially, if you were near an area of interest to authorities, the warrant gives them access to data from whoever was in the area from WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular and GPS data.

Is this really a corporate culture that sounds like it treats data and individuals with respect?

This isn’t the company you want to deal with a public-facing problem, no matter how big it is or how deep its resources go.

State Sen. Jackson is right: This could quickly turn very dystopian.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Birthplace
Morristown, New Jersey
Education
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture




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