Comments by Sanwar Ali:
Sadly, you cannot trust Governmental organisations not to misuse data. It is bound to be the case that some people who provide their phone number to the US authorities will find that the number is used for some other purpose than simply to help with controlling coronavirus. Lets not also forget the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in early 2018, when it was admitted that millions of Facebook users' personal data had been harvested without consent by Cambridge Analytica. This data of American voters was previously sold to political campaigns and provided assistance and analytics to the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns in 2016.
While the Cambridge Analytica scandal did not involve the US Government, the Trump campaign benefitted from the data harvested in 2016. Scandal hit Steve Bannon former Trump Chief Strategist and formerly chief executive officer of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, was previously a Vice-President of Cambridge Analytica. Steve Bannon was arrested recently in an unconnected fraud case relating to the “We Build the Wall” organisation that he founded to raise money for the border wall with Mexico.
Following recent criticism for collecting the phone numbers of American citizens, including journalists covering stories on US immigration and protests surrounding the shooting of Jacob Blake, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is now planning to retrieve the phone numbers of all air travelers to the US as part of COVID-19 tracing measures.
The new policy, currently under consideration by the DHS and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), would require air travelers to the US – including American citizens – to submit phone numbers and email addresses, regardless of whether they have contracted the coronavirus.
It’s claimed that the policy is intended to allow airlines to alert travelers who have potentially come into contact with a passenger infected by COVID-19. However, according to sources with knowledge of the policy, information collected could be used by law enforcement agencies, including US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Privacy and misuse concerns by American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU)
The Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Security Project, Hina Shamsi, argues that such a program is too broad to have a public health impact and would raise ‘serious concerns about privacy and misuse.’
Shamsi said: “The public health logic seems strained to say the least, because it’s not clear why information already provided on flight manifests and on booking and check-in isn’t enough. DHS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) should not be collecting data without clear limits and safeguards to protect travelers’ rights.”
The DHS and CDC have offered no comment on the policy.
However, an anonymous US official defended the program, telling NBC News that the CDC will be able to notify fellow passengers, via airlines, of potential exposure to COVID-19 and instruct them to quarantine.
While some airlines have been notifying passengers, there are concerns about consistency across carriers, according to the unnamed official.
According to a senior executive at a major airline that flies internationally, airport officials have been braced for contact tracing. Under current policy all air travelers are asked to provide their name, date of birth, nationality, passport number and an address for where they will be staying.
The new program would require passengers to provide an address, email address, plus primary and secondary phone numbers, according to the US government and airline officials.
Questions have been raised by the new system, with some stating that there’s no requirement in most countries to provide a secondary phone number upon arrival. In the United Kingdom, for example, no secondary phone number is needed by those arriving, but people are urged to quarantine for 14 days.
Contract tracking system similar to one used for travelers from China
It’s understood that the new contact tracing system is very similar to the one used on travelers arriving from China, which the CDC and DHS implemented in late February.
However, there are suspicions that the information gathered could be used by ICE to clampdown on overseas nationals who overstay their US visas.
Dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, said: “While contact tracing is a good thing, given the current number of cases in the US, threats from airline travel might be higher domestically.”
“There are parts of the United States with 100 times the number of cases as other parts of the world. So, if you are worried about someone coming into the US from Oslo, you should be more worried about someone coming in from Houston,” Sharfstein said.
According to a spokesperson for the International Air Transport Association, in May, international flight arrivals into the US had slumped by 97% compared to numbers in January.
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