Slouching towards Totalitarianism, Contact Tracing, Part 1 of 7: Is it the death of privacy or a public health solution?

Slouching towards Totalitarianism, Contact Tracing, Part 1 of 7: Is it the death of privacy or a public health solution?

Image: A poster from George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984.

The Golden Hammer Staff Reports

Conroe and Austin, May 28 – Is contact tracing the death of privacy in the United States or is it a public health necessity? This article begins a seven-part series on contact tracing, a program, which Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced during a press conference on April 27, 2020, when he announced his plan to reopen the Texas economy and phase out executive-mandated restrictions he and other government officials had put in place to respond to the Chinese Coronavirus (also known as COVID-19 or the Wuhan Virus), which eventually came to the United States from Asia and Europe.

Governor Abbott’s April 27 press release proclaimed, “During the press conference, the Governor also announced a new statewide testing and contact tracing program. Developed and implemented by DSHS, this program will help identify individuals who have contracted COVID-19 and those who may need to quarantine or be tested due to potential exposure. This phased implementation will allow Texans to box in the virus and slow, or even stop, further spread. Phase I of the tracing program has been completed, and Phase II begins today. Phase III begins May 11.”

Since April 27, conservative have raised many alarms about their concerns about infringements upon the privacy of Americans from contact tracing. Specifically, the concern is that contact tracing, a methodology in place among public health officials since at least the 1950s, will become a much more powerful means by which government may track and pinpoint the location and doings of all Americans through the use of digital technology, particularly through GPS tracking systems, which most Americans have enabled within their smartphones.

Governor Abbott’s April 27 Report provided the following description of his intended contact tracing program:

“Statewide Contact Tracing Program for Texas. As Texas opens and individuals return to work, it is imperative that public health authorities identify not only those who are ill with COVID-19 but also those individuals who have come in contact with a person who is ill. This contact tracing allows public health authorities to identify individuals who are also ill and who may not realize their symptoms are COVID-19 related, and others who are not symptomatic but need to be educated on how to monitor for symptoms and isolate if symptoms occur. Testing identifies individuals who need to isolate. Contact tracing is a core function of public health. Coordination between state and local public health officials is fundamental to contact tracing success. This ongoing pattern will box in the disease and will slow and can even stop further spread. Critical Elements Successful implementation of statewide contact tracing efforts is dependent on several critical elements: workforce recruitment and training; IT infrastructure; coordination with local health entities; and communication. Implementation DSHS is implementing statewide COVID-19 contact tracing in phases. This phased approach will build upon existing contact tracing efforts and allows DSHS to begin implementation more quickly as the first phase can be up and running while DSHS is bringing up additional phases.”

The reader of the Report, labeled “Texans Helping Texans: The Governor’s Report to Reopen Texas,” would find the frightening details in the fine print. One aspect, which has troubled many members of the Texas Legislature, particular Senator Bob Hall, Republican of Rockwall, and Representative Steve Toth, Republican of Conroe, is that Governor Abbott authorized the Texas Department of Health to enter into a $295.2 million contract to develop statewide digital contact tracing through an elusive company known as MTX, without any legislative authority and without any public discussion.

Public health experts have urged the use of contact tracing. A recent article, which appeared in the scholarly journal Science, on March 31, 2020, and entitled “Quantifying SARS-Cov-2 transmission suggests epidemic control with digital contact tracing,” by Oxford scholar Luca Ferretti and others, concluded as follows:

“New analyses indicate that severe acute respiratory syndrome–coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is more infectious and less virulent than the earlier SARS-CoV-1, which emerged in China in 2002. Unfortunately, the current virus has greater epidemic potential because it is difficult to trace mild or presymptomatic infections. As no treatment is currently available, the only tools that we can currently deploy to stop the epidemic are contact tracing, social distancing, and quarantine, all of which are slow to implement. However imperfect the data, the current global emergency requires more timely interventions. Ferretti et al.explored the feasibility of protecting the population (that is, achieving transmission below the basic reproduction number) using isolation coupled with classical contact tracing by questionnaires versus algorithmic instantaneous contact tracing assisted by a mobile phone application. For prevention, the crucial information is understanding the relative contributions of different routes of transmission. A phone app could show how finite resources must be divided between different intervention strategies for the most effective control.”

Despite the admission of contact tracing advocates that they have presented “imperfect data,” there clearly is a strong current among public health bureaucracy advocates to push governments into large-scale digital contact tracing.

The following is Governor Abbott’s plan to implement contact tracing throughout Texas in pictorial form:

Source: Governor Greg Abbott.

That all looks pretty on paper, but there are many problems with the implementation of digital contact tracing methodology, especially through smartphone tracking, which is spreading far more rapidly than the Chinese Coronavirus itself. Basically, if an individual comes into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, the government could implement “self-quarantine” measures and then, possibly, involuntary or forced measures to “protect the public and that individual” from ourselves.

Where the technological implementation becomes downright frightening is in its broader applications, which could easily occur after a statewide contact tracing methodology undergoes widespread use. Government could use the tracking and tracing almost everywhere that Global Positioning Satellites can reach.

The fine print of Governor Abbott’s April 27 Report also revealed that the State of Texas entered into its extraordinarily expensive contract for contact tracing before the Governor even issued the report.

Now, it’s unfair to lay all of the blame on Governor Abbott. President Donald Trump has properly made reopening the American economy his top priority at present. In his zest to gain concessions from his public health advisors, however, the President accepted contact tracing as well.  In his April 16, 2020, Report “Opening Up America,” President Trump endorsed contact tracing as a core responsibilities for state governments:

“TESTING & CONTACT TRACING

  • Ability to quickly set up safe and efficient screening and testing sites for symptomatic individuals and trace contacts of COVID+ results

  • Ability to test Syndromic/ILI-indicated persons for COVID and trace contacts of COVID+ results

  • Ensure sentinel surveillance sites are screening for asymptomatic cases and contacts for COVID+ results are traced (sites operate at locations that serve older individuals, lower-income Americans, racial minorities, and Native Americans).”

Specifically, the advocate for contact tracing within the United States Government has been Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Robert Redfield, the Director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has expressed considerably more reluctance to endorse contact tracing and has continued to advocate voluntary social distancing and hygienic measures to combat infections of COVID-19.

Legal experts fear that contact tracing poses substantial threats to civil liberties. First, the government invades the privacy of individuals without “probable cause,” the legal standard for the government’s forcible intrusion into an individual’s privacy under the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution. Second, there are many levels of ambiguity in government determinations and government actions after contact tracing has successfully tied a disease, such as Chinese Coronavirus, to a group of social contacts. Just because a social contact has occurred between an infected person and another does not necessarily mean that there is a genuine cause for alarm. Social questions, such as whether government interference in the other person’s family relationships is justifiable in order to protect the public health. Should the Texas Department of Adult and Child Protective Services ever intrude into a person’s life merely because he or she has had contact with an individual who has tested positive for a disease which poses a threat to public health? By using smartphones and other technological devices, which enjoy the use of tracking and geographical location software, do individuals impliedly give up their rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment and under the Texas Constitution’s Bill of Rights?

By what authority did Governor Abbott authorize the execution of a $295.2 million contract without authority or appropriation from the Texas Legislature? Did Governor Abbott and the Texas Department of Health cross Constitutional boundaries when they moved forward with contact tracing as a state and social policy without any legislative assent? What are the terms of the contact tracing contract with MTX and why is the State of Texas taking such enormous steps to hide its provisions?

The Golden Hammer, Montgomery County’s leading daily newspaper, will address these questions and many others in this seven-part series. If readers have specific questions you would like answered in the columns of this publication, please send your inquiries or concerns to goldenhammermoco@gmail.com. We will address your questions or concerns in the articles as they progress.

 

 

 

 

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