There are few pieces of personal information that are more, well, personal than your location. And, even in an era when users have become increasingly numb to the reality that just about everything they do online is being tracked, there is really no legitimate need to capture location information from the apps on our mobile devices aside from maybe for getting directions. Sure, it allows tech companies like Google and Facebook to better serve you--ads that is.
This week, however, The Washington Post is reporting that the federal government is having conversations with both tech giants about gaining access to your location information in an effort to track the spread of Covid-19. That's an idea that should bother every one of us.
I get it--the argument is that we are facing an existential threat. That's true, but in this particular case, the threat isn't just from the disease.
Yes, the novel coronavirus pandemic is a real threat. It has the potential to wreak havoc on our healthcare system and our economy. In many ways, it already has as new people are infected and businesses are closing for the near term.
If, however, we are willing to allow technology companies to give up our privacy and civil liberties to the government, even in a time of crisis, that will be a similarly troubling loss.
There are a lot of things we need right now. We need better capacity for hospitals and medical professionals to test for Covid-19--or, even better--for people to do it themselves. We need more hospital rooms that can handle highly contagious respiratory diseases. We need more personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks for doctors and nurses and patients. We need more ventilators to prepare for the worst-case scenario.
We don't need the government tracking our location.
According to the Washington Post, authorities want to use this information "to combat the novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak."
Did you catch that? The government wants to track your location to make sure you're not getting too close to other people. I know the situation is bad, and could get worse, but we don't do that here. We don't allow our citizens to be tracked so we can determine if they're following guidelines.
Listen, my family and I are practicing "social-distancing." We aren't going to restaurants (they're all closed anyway), and we canceled our planned spring break trip. The only time anyone in our family leaves the house is when my wife goes to work. Trust me, she'd rather not, but given that she's a nurse, that's a luxury she (and her patients) can't afford.
If the government is able to gather this information (and so far there is no indication that they will), the reasonable question is what's next? Our phones contain far more information than just our location. Will the government want to review our text messages to see if we've been in contact with anyone that feels sick? Will they start monitoring our web activity to find people who are searching for testing information as a sign they may be infected?
I have no problem following every guideline the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published, and I hope every other American will do so as well. That doesn't mean I'm cool with the government gathering up our information to check to see that we are.