By Chris White
Surveillance measures elected officials and big tech companies are taking to slow the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. mimic some of the heavy-handed efforts China used to track and police citizens.
Two of the largest tech companies in the U.S. are using their technological know-how to track Americans infected with the virus — a technique Chinese officials perfected during the early stages of the virus. Elizabeth, New Jersey, officials are likewise using a Chinese drone company DJI to surveil citizens who might be violating lockdown orders. The U.S. Army banned the company over cyber issues.
China, meanwhile, has deployed similar methods in enforcing measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, or COVID-19, which originated in the communist nation. It’s since spread internationally, killing more than 50,000 in the U.S. alone.
Big Tech Uses Its Data To Track People
Silicon Valley giants Apple and Google are allowing their smartphone operating systems to use Bluetooth technology as a way of tracing people.
The decision has caused backlash.
Sen. Josh Hawley, for one, wrote in a letter Tuesday to the CEOs demanding the Silicon Valley giants commit to being held personally liable for how the technology is applied. Hawley has become one of the Senate’s harshest critics of the tech industry.
The companies insist users will be anonymous, but the Missouri Republican noted in his letter that such data can be “reidentified simply by cross-referencing it with another data set.” Pairing GPS data with that from the project Google and Apple are embarking on can reveal identities, he said.
Neither Apple nor Google have responded to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment about the claims Hawley is making.
The codes, known as QR codes, are assigned to Chinese citizens to designate their health status. It essentially tracks where they are at all times.
A March 28 Wall Street Journal report noted that officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are using location data from cell phones to better understand the movements of American citizens. The data come from the mobile advertising industry, according to the WSJ report, which cites anonymous sources.
Such sources can reveal levels of compliance with lockdown orders, the report notes. Privacy analysts say officials could be opening Pandora’s box if strong legal parameters are not implemented.
“As true anonymization of location data is nearly impossible, strong legal safeguards are mandatory,” Wolfie Christl, a privacy activist and researcher, told TheWSJ.
China instituted the first lockdown in Wuhan at the end of January after officials first discovered COVID-19. The country closed restaurants, pubs, barbershops, and nail shops, among other store fronts as officials went to extremes.
China President Xi Jinping said during a trip to Hangzhou that the draconian measures were a sign of China’s ability to control the country.
While Europe and American officials followed suit, with governors and mayors across the U.S. issuing stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and other states went an extra mile. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, for instance, signed an executive order on April 11 effectively banning citizens from purchasing so-called non-essential products.
DeBlasio Condones Snitching
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio encouraged fellow New Yorkers in a video on Twitter Tuesday to report their neighbors and other people for violating social distancing guidelines.
“When you see a crowd, when you see a line that’s not distanced, when you see a supermarket that’s too crowded–anything–you can report it right away so we can get there to fix the problem,” de Blasio said in the video. New York levels $1,000 on people who do not adhere to social distancing policies.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) April 18, 2020
Some places in China, like the Sichuan province, pays citizens for information about their neighbor’s health — snitching on fellow citizens in the province can result in people being paid as much as 5,000 yuan, or $700, The Wall Street Journal reported in March. Another government in Guangdong province offered face masks in exchange for information.
New Jersey City Uses China’s Drones
Meanwhile, Elizabeth, New Jersey, Mayor J. Christian Bollwage is deploying drones from Chinese-based company DJI to warn its citizens who are walking outdoors not to get too close in physical proximity to other people. The drones blare sirens and issue this warning: “Stop gathering, disperse and go home.”
DJI reportedly donated drones to 43 agencies in 22 states to help enforce social distancing. The donations are part of DJI’s “COVID-19 US Disaster Relief Program,” which provides cities access to the drones for the purpose of surveilling populations during the pandemic.
The cameras give authorities the ability “to track who specifically has gone to which precise location,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told The Wall Street Journal in March. “It’s another way for the government to gather large amounts of information about people, really, without their consent, and in some cases, without their knowledge.”
Walking around without a protective face mask? Well, you can't avoid these sharp-tongued drones! Many village and cities in China are using drones equipped with speakers to patrol during the #coronavirus outbreak. pic.twitter.com/ILbLmlkL9R
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) January 31, 2020
A 2017 memo from the Los Angeles office of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau said officials had “moderate confidence” that DJI’s commercial drones are giving critical U.S. “infrastructure and law enforcement data to the Chinese government.” The U.S. Army banned their usage, citing cyber concerns.
Beijing has been using drones since 2016 to track down fugitives and monitor students taking tests, as well as policing Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
The country is now deploying drones to contain the coronavirus in rural areas where there are sparse medical services. The drones, just like those in Elizabeth, warn citizens to put on face masks.
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