Experts Warn Increased Surveillance to Track the Outbreak Could Become Permanent
As countries around the world combat the coronavirus outbreak, governments that already operated sophisticated surveillance programs are ramping up the tracking of their citizens.
"The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous."
Countries like China, South Korea, Israel, Singapore and others are closely monitoring citizens to track the spread of the virus and prevent further infections, and policymakers in the United States have proposed similar steps. These shifts in policy have civil liberties defenders alarmed, as history has shown increases in surveillance tend to stick around after an emergency is over.
In China, where the virus originated and surveillance is already ubiquitous, the government has taken measures like having people scan a QR code and answer questions about their health and travel history to enter their apartment building. The country has also increased the tracking of cell phones, encouraged citizens to report people who appear to be sick, utilized surveillance drones, and developed facial recognition that can identify someone even if they're wearing a mask.
In Israel, the government has begun tracking people's cell phones without a court order under a program that was initially meant to counter terrorism. Singapore has also been closely tracking people's movements using cell phone data. In South Korea, the government has been monitoring citizens' credit card and cell phone data and has heavily utilized facial recognition to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Here at home, the United States government and state governments have been using cell phone data to determine where people are congregating. White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's task force to combat the coronavirus outbreak has proposed using cell phone data to track coronavirus patients. Cities around the nation are also using surveillance drones to maintain social distancing orders. Companies like Apple and Google that work closely with the federal government are currently developing systems to track Americans' cell phones.
All of this might sound acceptable if you're worried about containing the outbreak and getting back to normal life, but as we saw when the Patriot Act was passed in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, expansions of the surveillance state can persist long after the emergency that seemed to justify them.
Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, says that this public health emergency requires bold action, but he worries that actions may be taken that will infringe on our privacy rights.
"This is an extraordinary crisis that justifies things that would not be justified in ordinary times, but we, of course, worry that any such things would be made permanent," Stanley says.
Stanley notes that the 9/11 situation was different from this current situation because we still face the threat of terrorism today, and we always will. The Patriot Act was a response to that threat, even if it was an extreme response. With this pandemic, it's quite possible we won't face something like this again for some time.
"We know that for the last seven or eight decades, we haven't seen a microbe this dangerous become a pandemic, and it's reasonable to expect it's not going to be happening for a while afterward," Stanley says. "We do know that when a vaccine is produced and is produced widely enough, the COVID crisis will be over. This does, unlike 9/11, have a definitive ending."
The ACLU released a white paper last week outlining the problems with using location data from cell phones and how policymakers should proceed when they discuss the usage of surveillance to combat the outbreak.
"Location data contains an enormously invasive and personal set of information about each of us, with the potential to reveal such things as people's social, sexual, religious, and political associations," they wrote. "The potential for invasions of privacy, abuse, and stigmatization is enormous. Any uses of such data should be temporary, restricted to public health agencies and purposes, and should make the greatest possible use of available techniques that allow for privacy and anonymity to be protected, even as the data is used."
"The first thing you need to combat pervasive surveillance is to know that it's occurring."
Sara Collins, policy counsel at the digital rights organization Public Knowledge, says that one of the problems with the current administration is that there's not much transparency, so she worries surveillance could be increased without the public realizing it.
"You'll often see the White House come out with something—that they're going to take this action or an agency just says they're going to take this action—and there's no congressional authorization," Collins says. "There's no regulation. There's nothing there for the public discourse."
Collins says it's almost impossible to protect against infringements on people's privacy rights if you don't actually know what kind of surveillance is being done and at what scale.
"I think that's very concerning when there's no accountability and no way to understand what's actually happening," Collins says. "The first thing you need to combat pervasive surveillance is to know that it's occurring."
We should also be worried about corporate surveillance, Collins says, because the tech companies that keep track of our data work closely with the government and do not have a good track record when it comes to protecting people's privacy. She suspects these companies could use the coronavirus outbreak to defend the kind of data collection they've been engaging in for years.
Collins stresses that any increase in surveillance should be transparent and short-lived, and that there should be a limit on how long people's data can be kept. Otherwise, she says, we're risking an indefinite infringement on privacy rights. Her organization will be keeping tabs as the crisis progresses.
It's not that we shouldn't avail ourselves of modern technology to fight the pandemic. Indeed, once lockdown restrictions are gradually lifted, public health officials must increase their ability to isolate new cases and trace, test, and quarantine contacts.
But tracking the entire populace "Big Brother"-style is not the ideal way out of the crisis. Last week, for instance, a group of policy experts -- including former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb -- published recommendations for how to achieve containment. They emphasized the need for widespread diagnostic and serologic testing as well as rapid case-based interventions, among other measures -- and they, too, were wary of pervasive measures to follow citizens.
The group wrote: "Improved capacity [for timely contact tracing] will be most effective if coordinated with health care providers, health systems, and health plans and supported by timely electronic data sharing. Cell phone-based apps recording proximity events between individuals are unlikely to have adequate discriminating ability or adoption to achieve public health utility, while introducing serious privacy, security, and logistical concerns."
The bottom line: Any broad increases in surveillance should be carefully considered before we go along with them out of fear. The Founders knew that privacy is integral to freedom; that's why they wrote the Fourth Amendment to protect it, and that right shouldn't be thrown away because we're in an emergency. Once you lose a right, you don't tend to get it back.
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.