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Data Produced By Cell Phones Not Sufficiently Accurate to Use for Coronavirus Contact Tracing, Says ACLU

David Jelke



Screenshot of the ACLU's Jay Stanley at May 2017 event hosted by Lexington Institute

April 10, 2020 – Data produced by cell phones is “not sufficiently accurate to be used for contact tracing,” according to Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at a Wednesday press briefing by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Contact tracing is the practice of using data to infer the likelihood that an individual or a group of neighbors has been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus. Cell phones produces location data that potentially allow governments to perform contact tracing.

Stanley outlined three problems with mass data collection that the ACLU has identified:

  • First, “Data on individuals’ locations is not accurate enough for automated contact tracing.”

Cell tower location data can’t tell you how close two phones are to each other. GPS has a margin of error of five to 20 meters on a clear day and doesn’t work when you’re indoors.

Wi-Fi tracking is simply used to supplement cell towers and GPS. And QR codes are not widespread enough in the U.S. to be useful like they were in China, where citizens must scan a QR code when entering buildings, buses, and taxis.

  • Second, the algorithms that buttress contact tracing are not likely to be reliable.

This one is a little tricky to understand, so a recent example in the news might help elucidate the issue. In Israel, a contact tracing algorithm flagged an Israeli woman simply for waving at her infected boyfriend from outside his apartment building and was resultingly issued a quarantine.

“Such a system is likely to make many such mistakes,” a white paper released by the ACLU stated. The white paper noted that “human life is messy, complicated, and full of anomalies.”

  • Third, “the data is fragmented and may be biased.”

The white paper makes the point that “no single, centralized party holds the location data generated by Americans.” Instead, it is divvied up amongst what the ACLU refers to as “an essentially corrupt ecosystem” of companies that hide tracking capabilities in apps.

Big tech companies like Google and Facebook may also provide reach, but their location database only covers a minority of their users and is therefore not representative and may leave out entire populations.

In addition to the technical feasibility of contact tracing in the U.S., the ACLU expressed reservations about the protection of data privacy.

Jennifer Granick, surveillance and cybersecurity counsel at the ACLU, said that South Korea “did not do a good job” in anonymizing data and resultingly the data may have suffered from a “social humiliation” backlash that undermined the integrity of the data collection efforts and certainly the privacy rights of its citizens.

She added that data collection “should be limited to the public health crisis” and that proper regulatory oversight will be needed to actually make that happen. However, with the right set of safeguards in place, Granick acknowledged that “privacy and effectiveness are actually complementary and not contradicting.”

David Jelke was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in neuroscience. Growing up in Miami, he learned to speak Spanish during a study abroad semester in Peru. He is now teaching himself French on his iPhone.


National Plan Required For Consumer Privacy, Congresswoman says

Samuel Triginelli



Screenshot of Suzan DelBene from C-Span

April 1, 2021 — A Congresswoman from Washington State, who introduced federal legislation that would be the first national consumer privacy law if adopted, says the federal government is being outpaced by some states that are implementing their own consumer privacy legislation.

“There is a significant problem with consumer privacy in the US,” said Representative Suzan Delbene on Tuesday during a New Democratic Network event. Delbene introduced her Information Transparency, and Personal Data Control Act, a wide ranging federal privacy legislation, on March 10. Delbene is the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and is the chair of the House New Democrat Coalition caucus.

There is no federal data privacy law, which has forced some states to pursue their own consumer data policies. That includes California and, recently, Virginia. Some have said the concern is that there will be a patchwork of different privacy legislation that may end up just confusing Americans.

“We need a uniform set of rights for consumers and businesses standards to follow in the digital world,” DelBene said.

The bill states that companies must provide privacy polies in plain language, must allow users to opt-in for personal information gathering, must disclose who personal information is being shared with, and must submit to privacy audits every two years. The federal law would also give the government the ability to preempt existing state laws.

Simon Rosenberg, president of New Democrat Network, said about the bill that, “together, we have a lot of work to do in the coming years to restore the promise of the Internet. One of the areas of greatest need is creating a single working privacy standard for the United States.

“In her bill, the approach Representative DelBene takes to protecting Americans’ privacy is smart, measured, and will undoubtedly be highly influential in shaping the approach Congress takes in the days ahead. It is a very welcome addition to the vital debate underway about our digital future,” Rosenberg added.

The purpose of this bill is to ensure that privacy policies are transparent and clear. “Many consumers are given lots of information with lots of legal terms, that leads them to click the accept button without knowing what they have signed up for,” DelBene said.

“There is an urgent need for consumers to understand what data is being shared,” she added. “We want to make sure there is enforcement. The law says that this will be the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission, so the FTC must have the resources to do this.

“I think my bill is focused on privacy specifically because I think it is foundational. We build on important things, such as AI, facial recognition, and all the other issues we need to address. If we don’t start addressing the issues of data privacy, it will be hard to imagine how it will the expansion of laws to address a broader set of issues that need to get ahead of.”

Congresswoman DelBene believes the bill can be bipartisan, but she wants to make sure Congress understands its importance. “I’m not sure Congress understands these issues, so it takes a collective effort to push it forward.”

DelBene says she’s confident that Congress will follow the bill, despite many congresspeople who she said are hesitant to take that first step.

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Attach Strings To Data Collection To Combat Surveillance Capitalism, Experts Suggest

Samuel Triginelli



Photo of Marietje Schaake from the European Parliament

March 29, 2021 – Laws addressing how much data can be collected should be among new regulations that must ensure data collection from big technology companies doesn’t harm Americans, according to a March 17 panel of academics at the South by Southwest conference.

The era of corporate self-regulation is now up, said Marietje Schaake of the Standford University Cyber Policy Center and panelist at SXSW conference discussing the “techno-democratic” approach to Big Tech, including what to do about surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is an economic system centered on commodifying personal data with the core purpose of profit-making.

“We have heard many pledges, many promises, and good intention offers for solutions for self-regulatory initiatives. And the time is out for those,” she said.

Schaake said it is time the government attach consequences to data collection to the detriment of the public and to set clear limits on collection practices.

“We have tried for too long, and it has led to several distractions and lost time to make sure that the rule of law is leading and that there are enforceable accountable, transparent expectations placed on these companies,” she said.

Joan Donovan, a social scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said what’s critical is how much data tech companies should be allowed to collect and under what conditions should they sell it to ensure rights aren’t violated.

“The tech sector as it is built now, relies on harvesting so much data about an individual that their products and the entire economy they are built on could not exist” if there were robust rights and privacy protections in place, Donovan said.

She said the discussion about regulating these businesses should include moving from a focus on protecting enterprise to protecting human rights.

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House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Calls for Update to Children’s Privacy Legislation

Derek Shumway



March 11, 2021 – House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Thursday called for an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act at subcommittee hearing on “Kids Online During COVID: Child Safety in an Increasingly Digital Age.”

“The challenges children face online existed before the pandemic, but it’s only gotten worse,” he said.

Visiting in person with extended family and friends have so far become a thing of the past as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Many other in-person activities have been replaced with video games, social media, and other video services.

Kids’ screen time has doubled during the pandemic, said Pallone. The effects of too much screen time can increase instances of anxiety, sleep deprivation, obesity, and cyber bullying, he said.

The increased screen time due to the pandemic has turned consumers into victims of what he called harassment and dark pattern manipulation led by advertisers. Children cannot defend themselves like adults in managing these predatory practices, he said.

“Despite laws to protect children’s privacy, data collection and tracking of children is disturbingly prevalent.” He went on to criticize many apps targeting children on mobile devices are notorious for collecting personal information, which is then bought and sold, resulting in advertising meant to manipulate children.

He said that digital ad spending specifically targeting children was expected to reach $1.7 billion this year. COPPA, which hasn’t been updated since 2013, needs to be updated because, he said, internet companies have since continued to target children.

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