Surveillance Spam in Utah
Utah’s attempt to use geofencing and electronic checkpoints to track people coming into the state during the coronavirus pandemic was an abject failure.
As the coronavirus pandemic gripped the U.S., Utah Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order that required every adult crossing the Utah border to submit an electronic “Travel Self-Declaration Form,” including detailed contact information along with data about their health status. As vehicles crossed into the state, the state’s emergency alert system sent a text to all of the cell phones in the vehicle directing the occupants to fill out the declaration form.
The people-tracking scheme didn’t work and the state was forced to abandon it within about 72 hours. The system couldn’t differentiate between a cell phone inside a car entering the state and a cell phone sitting in somebody’s house near the border. As a result. some area residents living dozens of miles from the border had to endure repeated alerts. A lady living in Myton, Utah, told Deseret News she received 80 text messages in a single morning. Myton is about 60 miles from the Colorado border. The system also failed to distinguish between vehicles entering and leaving the state.
According to the ALCU, “The government made several attempts to narrow the wireless zones, but failed to stop the wayward text messages going to people located miles from the state border.”
This reveals a problem with many surveillance technologies. They operate with a huge margin of error. For instance, privacy advocates have raised significant concerns about the accuracy of facial recognition technology, particularly when reading the facial features of minority populations. During a test run by the ACLU of Northern California, facial recognition misidentified 26 members of the California legislature as people in a database of arrest photos.
The inaccuracies inherent in surveillance technologies become more concerning when you realize this spy gear can be used to send armed government agents after you.
Utah authorities emphasized that filling out the declaration forms was on the “honor system,” but at the time, they called the rollout “Phase 1,” leaving the door open for future enforcement. In fact, you can always count on surveillance programs to expand and become more intrusive over time.
Even more concerning is the fact that the state shut down program due to complaints about “surveillance spam” and technical failures, not because people were angry about this appalling example of government overreach and its violation of basic privacy rights. As the ACLU put it, “The problem wasn’t that Utahns were concerned about the government wanting to know personal details about thousands of people entering the state.
“The problem wasn’t the state’s threat that it could “take subsequent steps” if travelers entering the state did not comply with the order. Nor was the problem that many people in Utah’s immigrant community correctly feared implementation of this new surveillance system given the state’s troubled history with the secret sharing of personal data with outside law enforcement agencies, as well as data breaches of sensitive information held by the Department of Health. The state of Utah’s failed experiment with this technology and short-lived plan to infringe on people’s privacy should serve as a lesson for government leaders nationwide. It should also serve as a lesson for all of us to scrutinize government actions — even in times of crisis — more closely.”
Crises always serve as a pretext for government expansion. As Micheal Boldin said in an episode of Path to Liberty, “In times of crisis and fear, you’ll almost always find people who support the monster state calling for more power – more government power – more centralized power as a solution to basically anything and everything. And one of the first things we always see them go to is more surveillance. Warrantless mass surveillance is something that gets pushed through in these types of times over and over again.”
We should resist it. Not just because we might end up with surveillance spam on our phone. And not just because this stuff doesn’t always work as advertised. We should resist it because it is a dangerous expansion of government power that will undermine our liberty with 100 percent certainty.
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