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Safety must never cost us our freedoms

Scotch-taped to the computer monitor in my very messy newsroom office are a few things critical to my daily routine that I have collected through the years.

There’s a list of the telephone extension numbers for members of my staff. There is a photocopy of the AP Stylebook page delineating the difference between “lay” and “lie” — because I have been known to confuse the two. There is a Bible verse, Matthew 19:26, that gives me strength. And there are a few typed quotes from people in history — Einstein, MLK, Jefferson and Franklin, in which, as a journalist and an American, I find meaning.

It’s the Benjamin Franklin quote that came to mind last week as I read an opinion piece from the British newspaper, The Guardian. That newspaper’s editorial questioned use of a smartphone app released by England’s National Health Service in the COVID-19 fight.

The app is supposed to enable users to track whether they interacted with someone who had COVID-19.

In order for it to work, a large proportion of the population must download the app, requiring mass consent.

So, let me get this straight.

Someone apparently thinks it is a good idea to download this app to phones that are all-but affixed to each of us. Then, someone — not sure who — will track our travels and interactions, and, of course, store that data God knows where and for God knows how long.

Here’s what The Guardian said about its quest to get answers for these questions: “Instead of offering cast-iron guarantees about the length of time for which data would be held; who can access it; and the level of anonymity afforded, we have had opacity and obfuscation.”

Welcome to the future.

The creation is not yet a done deal because there have been some bumps in the road. The NHS in England wanted to pool the information in a single database. (That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.) But tech giants Apple and Google would prefer to spread the COVID-19 data across users’ devices. And then there is the possibility of “third-party” developers to get in on the action.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who sees this as alarming.

Human Rights Watch, a global organization that describes itself as made up of lawyers, journalists and other experts working to protect rights of the vulnerable, last week said the mobile location tracking program being used by governments in a fight against COVID-19 “poses serious risks to human rights.”

They go on to say, “The programs, whose utility in controlling the pandemic has yet to be proven, may introduce unnecessary and disproportionate surveillance measures in public health disguise.”

In a Q&A report titled “Mobile Location Data and Covid-19,” Human Rights Watch notes that many different ways exist in which governments can use geolocation and proximity information from mobile phones, posing great risk to privacy rights.

Specifically, they speak about China, Israel, South Korea and, you guessed it, the United States.

“Some restrictions on people’s rights may be justifiable during a public health emergency, but people are being asked to sacrifice their privacy and turn over personal data for use by untested technologies,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Containing the pandemic and reopening society are essential goals, but we can do this without pervasive surveillance.”

At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, let’s remember that programs intended to be temporary measures to help combat the pandemic could become permanent surveillance.

Frankly, I already have growing concern over constitutional rights being stripped away during this pandemic because our government has ordered we can’t assemble — particularly in houses of worship.

Of course, I understand the importance of staying safe.

But we must never stop asking at what cost to our freedoms do these things come?

As the Benjamin Franklin quote taped to my computer monitor says:

“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

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