Saturday, May 23, 2020

COVID-19 and Contact Tracing: What Possibly Could Go Wrong?

During World War II there was one name which was feared above all others---Gestapo. It made the bravest and most daring men and women freeze in dread of the knock on the door at two o'clock in the morning. The Gestapo, or Geheime Staatspolizei (Secret State Police) as it was officially called, was used by the Nazis to track, monitor, and arrest anyone suspected of treason against the Third Reich.

For many, it was believed that there was a Gestapo agent in every bar, every outdoor cafe, every street corner, or lurking in every dark alley with their black fedora pulled down low, their black leather trench coat with the collar turned up, a cigarette dangling menacingly from their lips while holding a small notebook close to their chest and scribbling down everything they saw and heard.

We typically think of them ferreting out members of the underground who are engaged in a deadly cat and mouse game of smuggling arms, or downed RAF and American pilots in and out of dusty lofts, sending coded messages, conducting sabotage in the dead of the night or assassinating German officers and pro-Nazi collaborators as they sit in open air cafes sipping beer. Such is our image from the movies.

From 1933 until 1934, the Gestapo was headed by Reich Minister Hermann Goring, who was also the Reich Air Marshall and head of the deadly Luftwaffe. After that, it fell under the direction of Heinrich Himmler, head of the dreaded SS or Schutzstaffel. In 1939, it was transferred to the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) and henceforth considered a "sister department" to the Security Service (SD), the intelligence arm of the SS and overseen by the "Butcher of Prague", Reinhard Heydrich.

For the long twelve years of the Third Reich's existence, the Gestapo was often thought to be everywhere; all-knowing and all powerful, both inside and outside of the Reich. The truth of the matter is that there were in fact relatively few people who worked for Geheime Staatspolizei and the number of undercover agents was equally few. The Gestapo, which worked closely with the regular police force, was actually comprised mostly of clerks and analysts more than anything. Surprised? Don't be.

The role of the Gestapo was intentionally broad and loosely defined. Thanks to a 1936 law, it operated without judicial review. It was charged with more than finding secret transmitters or members of the underground. It was investigate any charges of "non-conformist behavior". What did this mean? It meant that anyone suspected of anti-government behavior was a potential target. This could (and did) often mean people who failed to give the proper Nazi greeting, individuals who acted "suspicious" or "unsocial" (meaning people who liked to be left alone), reading "subversive" books or magazines.

It meant entertaining guests at unusual hours (especially someone of the opposite sex), "suspected" homosexuality, not supporting Reich policies (like supporting the war), holding anti-Reich views regarding religion or race relations, keeping odd hours, having no visible means of support, failure to listen to official state radio broadcasts, being drunk often or doing drugs, as well as those who failed to adhere to regulations pertaining to blackouts, didn't show up for "volunteer" civic functions, and so forth. It was these types of behaviors which lead to the arrest and execution of Anne Frank, Sophie Scholl and members of the "White Rose" resistance movement. So, how did the Gestapo learn of all these "non-conformist" activities? Was it agents hiding in bushes and up trees? Nope!

In fact, 80% of ALL investigations were due to reports by ordinary civilians! On average, there was rarely more than 50 Gestapo personnel in any midsize city. For example, Northern Bavaria had no more than approximately 90 full time agents. In the Lower Rhineland, which had a population of over four million, there were just 281 members of the Gestapo available. If it wasn't for the average German snitching for one reason or another, the Gestapo would have neither been as effective or feared as it was.

As for the reason these ordinary Germans spied on and reported their fellow Germans, most did so out of as sense of patriotism; a belief they were protecting the Reich and helping to ensure law and order. They felt they were keeping Germany and Germans safe. A few admitted after the war that it was out of jealousy or some petty dislike of the individual. As a result, millions were put on watch lists. They were subject to harassment, random detention or arrest, fines, blackmail, and for many, it meant prison terms ranging from months to years, and for a few, it meant not just torture, but certain death (Sophie Scholl, mentioned above, was beheaded by guillotine. She was just 21).

The reason I mention this brief history lesson is because "our" government officials have been encouraging ordinary people---people like you and me---to essentially spy on our neighbors and report them if it appears they are not following certain guidelines or even mere recommendations. What are we talking about? Reporting people who, for one reason or another, are not wearing a mask; going places other than grocery stores, pharmacy, or hardware store for "essential" items; congregating in groups of ten or more, and so on.

Who is doing this? Well, people like Colorado's Governor Jared Polis, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, Oregon Governor Kate Brown, California Governor Gavin Newsom, among several others. They've "warned" their constituents about what is expected of them and how they should act, otherwise they face a reversal of their newly earned "freedoms" and a return to mandatory lockdowns and quarantines. Some have even set up special phone lines and websites to make it easy to rat on their fellow citizens.

In Laredo, Texas, cops responded to an anonymous tip on one such website about two women doing hair and nails on the sly. They were promptly shut down and face possible fines and a mandatory 14 day self quarantine complete with an ankle monitor! Meanwhile, in Huston a county commissioner tried another tack. He ordered that everyone wear a mask or face a $1000 fine. However, instead of handing out tickets, law enforcement handed out masks. Even in Kentucky, Governor Andy Beshear is has a hotline to report anyone who isn't in "compliance" with his guidelines.

In Palm Beach Florida, County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw went a step further. He's encouraging people to report anyone making "anti-government" comments through a special hotline 24/7. It's part of a one million dollar program to reduce potential "violence", presumably against law enforcement and/or government personnel. And don't think Florida is the only place where this is happening.

In some locations, cameras used to monitor crime or traffic are being used to detect individuals with high temperatures. Facial recognition programming is then being used to help identify these individuals, which is prompting a visit from authorities. Stores are also imposing their own restrictions such as "no mask--no entry" (akin to "no shoes, no shirt, no service" I suppose). Of course, that's their legal right. It's their property and they can set the rules. Of course, you can spend your money elsewhere too. Stories like this are popping up all over the country, so don't give me any of that "it can't happen here" BS. It can and it is.

I want to point out, however, that like those in Nazi Germany, the majority of these "narcs" are doing so out of a misplaced sense of patriotism or compassion for others. They sincerely believe that what they are doing is the "right thing". The only exception is that no one is being executed. However, individuals are being questioned by authorities. Some are being arrested, fined, while others are facing jail time, or at the very least, enforced "self-quarantine" complete with a ankle monitor. A few are risking their business licenses. No doubt a record for "future reference" is being created as well.

What about contact tracing? Actually, contact tracing is not new. We just haven't heard that much about it since we haven't faced a pandemic recently, but it's actually been in use for awhile to manage epidemics. In the past it was more of a matter of creating a list of everyone you had come into contact with over a specific period of time. It's like creating a "contact web". The big difference being proposed here is the use of our smartphones to create the "web" for us, which is not only potentially more accurate but much more timely. We will now download an app from the CDC directly onto our smartphone which will do the work for us.

The current proposal also takes into consideration personal privacy. It does not disclose the identity of the infected individual. It does, however, notify everyone of their contacts that they may have come into contact with someone who was infected with the virus (or some other disease in the future), and asks them about any symptoms. In effect, it would provide an early warning system for all concerned.

On the surface, it sounds like pretty reasonable. I would certainly like to know if I may have become infected with some virus or disease so that I could limit any contact with individuals with impaired immune systems while doing what I needed to stay healthy. I don't need to know necessarily who the potentially infected person is, but it would sure help me in making my decision. But, doesn't that violate their privacy? Do I have a right to know who may have infected me?

I guess I could contact everyone on my contact list ask "which one of you is sick?" and see what happens. Of course, I could eliminate some simply by virtue of their known proximity to me. Most of us have a pretty good idea of where we've been over the past week or so and who we've been around. However, it doesn't take into consideration strangers we bumped into at the local grocery store or some business who may have been infected.

The other big issue from my perspective is who will have access to this information; for how long; and what ultimately becomes of it regardless of whether I'm infected or not. Is there going to be a record of me hanging around "questionable" characters who may be subject to certain illnesses? Is there going to be a shared government/medical/insurance record of how often I get sick, from what, and will it affect my medical care or my insurance rates? If so, could it make me eventually financially uninsurable; that is, make it impossible to afford my insurance premiums?

Going only slightly further, could my health record somehow become attached to my credit worthiness? And if it does, couldn't that also eventually affect my employability? After all, if I'm subject to being sick (or live in area which has a high infection rate) won't it affect my ability to work and thus pay my bills? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where this could all lead. Government programs have a nasty habit of getting out of control real easy as everyone knows.

So, while I understand and can appreciate contact tracing, applying this to our smart phones could lead to unintended consequences. Once again, we are faced with the quandary of the needs of the many versus the needs of the few or the one. Before I would consider doing this, I would need some strong assurances about my privacy both short and long term. Could you imagine what the Gestapo and their well intended informants could have done with this technology? Besides, we've seen how well the snitching and our privacy is working out.


Sophie Scholl

No, We Don't Need To Foster A Culture Of Snitching To Stay Safe

Achtung, Baby: Are People Being Encouraged To Rat On Anti-Government Neighbors?

New Coronavirus Hotline Helps People Snitch On Their Neighbors For Breaking Rules

What Is Contact Tracing? How It Could Be Used To Fight Coronavirus

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