Opinion: We Need A Blockchain COVID-19 Tracker So We Don’t Have To Trust Google and Apple

Google and Apple are working together to create a COVID-19 tracking app. While they emphasize the technology would be opt-in only and protect users’ privacy, we’ll just have to trust them on that. But can we really trust Silicon Valley tech giants, or even the U.S. government to respect our privacy?

Both marketers and the police state would likely find the information gathered by this app very lucrative. Like so much oil underneath a field in Texas, all that data would be sitting on servers just waiting to be tapped. Further, we’re living in the post-Edward Snowden era. So we know we can’t really trust Google or Apple, or the federal government to have scruples.

World Wide Wiretap: The Era of Mass Surveillance

Edward Snowden was the government contractor working for the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency in Hawaii in 2013. A high-level operative with an expansive degree of access to secret government programs, Snowden worried something terrible was happening. The U.S. government was casting a very wide surveillance net. The intelligence community essentially turned its surveillance apparatus against the American people. In Snowden’s view, this was an unprecedented change in government. And not only did it happen without a national conversation and the consent of the governed, it happened without them even knowing.

Snowden worked with a journalist at The Guardian by the name of Glenn Greenwald to disclose the secret spying programs. He gives a very detailed account of what happened and his thought process in a 2019 interview with Joe Rogan. It’s a very worthwhile podcast to watch:

Snowden and Greenwald made these disclosures in a series of reports starting in June 2013. Snowden has since had to flee the country and remains in an asylum in Russia. In March 2013, just three months before the bombshell NSA surveillance revelations, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked NSA Director James Clapper:

Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper then lied under oath during congressional testimony when he answered:

No sir. Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect. But not wittingly.

We Can’t Trust Big Tech With COVID-19 Surveillance App

The public would soon learn that not only was the NSA collecting data on millions of Americans, but it was doing so with the cooperation of Silicon Valley tech giants.

On June 7, 2013, The Washington Post reported:

The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets, according to a top-secret document obtained by The Washington Post.

The program, code-named PRISM, has not been made public until now.

These were the nine companies listed on a leaked NSA slideshow with information about the PRISM program: Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.

So when Google and Apple get together and build a mass surveillance app for COVID-19 contact tracing, we cannot be credulous about claims that they will respect our privacy.

The Markup reports:

The broadcast would not identify the infected person, it would just alert the recipient that someone in his or her recent orbit had been infected. And, importantly, the companies say they are not collecting data on people’s identities and infection status. Nearly all of the data and communication would be stored on users’ phones.

So, in other words, the companies are saying just trust us.

We have no reason to.

We Need A Blockchain Contact Tracing App for Disease Epidemics

As one computer science professor warns:

Even though ‘privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance’, this is a game changing event that has grave consequences. […] Instead of an app, the technology is pushed down the stack into the operating system layer creating a Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform. This means the technology is available all the time, for all kinds of applications.

He concludes the COVID-19 contact tracing app “effectively turns our smartphones into a global mass surveillance tool.” The only acceptable solution for digital contact tracing via smartphone is something with blockchain properties. It would need to be open-source, distributed, and anonymous to ensure privacy is really protected. So that we don’t have to trust anyone not to misuse our data.

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