The $2 Trillion Stimulus Package Is Funding Your Own Surveillance

by | Mar 31, 2020

The $2 Trillion Stimulus Package Is Funding Your Own Surveillance

by | Mar 31, 2020

Screen Shot 2020 03 31 At 7.51.49 Am

From corporate bailouts to endowments for art, the $2 trillion stimulus package signed into law last Friday has been roundly criticized as a smash-and-grab robbery perpetrated by the country’s elite.

And rightly so.

However, there is another provision in the 1,000-plus page legislation that should concern Americans just as much as any of its negative fiscal or economic implications: funding for what seems to be a massive surveillance program.

Tucked away in a section labeled “emergency appropriations for coronavirus health response and agency operations” is a $500 million allocation to the CDC for “public health data surveillance and analytics infrastructure modernization.” There are few details, other than a line saying that the CDC will report to the House and Senate appropriations committees on the development of a “public health surveillance and data collection system for coronavirus” within 30 days of the law’s enactment.

This reporter asked for more details from a press officer at the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, but has not received a response.

Based on the numerous reports, it’s reasonable to assume that the allocation has something to do with collecting geolocation data from smartphones – ostensibly to track the spread of coronavirus, and to make sure all of us good boys and girls are practicing social distancing. Indeed, this is happening in numerous other jurisdictions, including Israel, Australia, and at least four European countries.

Another clue that the system will entail geolocation tracking is the exorbitant price tag, which leads one to believe that the program will be highly technical. At $500 million, the surveillance system is five times what the NSA spent over a three-year period on its failed bulk data collection scheme.

If these assumptions are correct – and to be sure, this is only speculation – we could be looking at the beginning of a government tracking system the likes of which we’ve never seen. 

Either way, it’s hard to fathom how an agency that has failed so miserably in its response to the global pandemic would be rewarded with a $500 million influx – though even Andrew Yang has come to the realization that public bureaucracies are rewarded for failure.

Yes, it’s true that covid-19 tracking in the US is a mess, largely due to a lack of uniform reporting standards amongst the states. Not all states report the number of negative covid-19 test results, which has prevented researchers from estimating contraction rates. And not all report the number of coronavirus carriers that have had to be hospitalized, which would be helpful to know how dangerous this pandemic is.

But this could be addressed by the CDC mandating uniform reporting requirements among the states – low-hanging fruit that should hardly cost anything, let alone the GDP of a small Caribbean island.

And when it comes to tracking geolocation data, there’s no reason why that can’t be left to the private sector. The startup Tectonix Geo, for example, has already wowed Twitter with its demonstration about how a single Fort Lauderdale beach party can lead to the virus spreading around the country.

Many people said they were creeped out by Tectonix Geo’s demonstration, even though the company claims to be complying with privacy laws like Europe’s GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act.

If the thought of a private company tracking smartphones is hair-raising, then whatever the CDC plans on doing with that $500 million should be downright terrifying. 

About Ken Silva

Ken Silva is DC-based reporter who covers issues related to data privacy and cybersecurity. Before that, he spent six years in the Caribbean, reporting on everything from offshore finance to international drug trafficking. He is originally from Cleveland, Ohio.

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