Abbott Laboratories, COVID-19 and Mass Surveillance – The Bowdoin Orient


Kyra tan

Most people and businesses use surveillance technology unknowingly, in large part because of the way surveillance has “crept” into the technology. What I propose to call Surveillance Creep works in three phases. First, a business decides to collect information about its users. Second, these users do not react to the privacy breach, usually because they are unaware of it or, even if they are somewhat aware of it, they do not appreciate the extent of the surveillance. and therefore cannot accurately judge privacy practices. . Third, as the company continues to build surveillance into its products, users who depend on the products come to depend on and become unresponsive to surveillance. Often there are better alternatives to what the company offers that are privacy conscious.

Bowdoin College has passed on the surveillance slip into daily life, especially through the technologies it uses to control the COVID pandemic. Consider Abbott Laboratories, the company that administers the NAVICA app that the college will use to manage COVID test results from close contacts on campus. Abbott’s ultimate goal is to draw “deductions … [from your] personal information… to create a profile reflecting your preferences, characteristics, psychological tendencies, predispositions, behavior, attitudes, intelligence, abilities and aptitudes. You can find this statement for about 30 seconds in their privacy policy.

To be clear, Abbott “[does] not sell your personal information. However, [they] share personal information with [their] suppliers, subcontractors, business and service partners, [and] other third parties … [including] analytics companies, advertisers, payment processors, customer service and support providers, messaging, IT and SMS service providers, web hosting and development companies, and order fulfillment companies… [and] co-promotion partners … [from] other businesses. ”Why not throw it in the kitchen sink?

I am sure the College did not contract with Abbott for surveillance intent. On the contrary, they probably proceeded without giving too much thought to and understanding the scope of Abbott’s oversight. It is, however, the duty of the College to realize the immense dangers of surveillance capitalism and to work against it. For example, instead of giving students take-home antigen tests and using trained practitioners on to make sure the tests are administered correctly, students could instead walk to Farley Field House, have personal interactions with people in the community and not have to deal with eMed’s so-called “anonymized” health data sets. I should mention that although Abbott’s NAVICA division collects less health information, Abbott’s own policy may supersede any current or amended NAVICA privacy policies.

The three characteristics of surveillance creep are also displayed in the College’s use of the CLEAR app (separate from Abbott’s NAVICA app) to store proof of vaccination for campus visitors. CLEAR is a biometric surveillance company with an invasive privacy policy, and the College, again, appears to ignore the extent of CLEAR’s surveillance and the extent of the information CLEAR collects. The College devotes only one sentence to explaining how CLEAR treats your data, stating that “the immunization information you provide to CLEAR is not shared with third party partners… and is simply used to generate a red Health Pass or green for screening purposes. This statement is incorrect: CLEAR’s privacy policy states that “the CLEAR Health Pass may collect, use or share personal health information”. Additionally, since CLEAR has not made the source code for their software applications publicly available, users have no way of verifying how CLEAR processes the data they collect.

There is a better alternative to the CLEAR app: ask all visitors to wear masks and let paper vaccination cards suffice as proof. The College finds these two stages adequate: masks are compulsory for visitors, and, “for those who do not have a smartphone”, paper vaccinations are sufficient. Visitors to Bowdoin, which include high school minors, should receive an honest portrayal of CLEAR, who, by the way, could verify your identity using a combination of, but not limited to: 1) your location, triangulated to using GPS, WiFi and / or Bluetooth; 2) your IP address; 3) unique advertising identifiers of your device; 4) the unique hardware identifiers of your device; and 5) your unique gait, as measured using your device’s accelerometer.

The COVID pandemic has unfortunately led to many surveillance projects masquerading as health projects, as well as health projects that inadvertently monitor. As we’ll likely have to live with COVID for a while, we should re-evaluate some of the more invasive measures we’ve been willing to use to curb it. In fact, given that vaccines prevent most hospitalizations and deaths (although there is still no data on long-term COVID prevention), I think we should stop using systems COVID-related invasive controls. The more insensitive we become to giving central authorities access to our personal information and day-to-day activities – for example, through contact tracing apps or “vaccine passports” – then the less power and , frankly, with determination – we’ll have to stop the invasive practices.

As we get used to surveillance and it becomes more targeted in everyday products, over time we will become dependent on surveillance itself. Ten years ago, coffee makers made great coffee and didn’t contain microphones. Coffee makers can still make great coffee, but they also listen to your voice commands. While I cannot guarantee that the coffee makers of the future will make great coffee, I can assure you that they will be programmed to keep you having good conversations. The only way out would be to forgo the coffee maker and coffee. And if you didn’t already know, humans aren’t good at giving up coffee, nor the fun and whimsy that modern technology can offer.

Surveillance has implications for democracy. Consider Abbott’s NAVICA program, where users can be allowed or denied access to a “NAVICA-compatible” location after presenting a NAVICA-generated QR image encoding to an entry, whether they have or not recently tested positive or negative for COVID. Imagine if Abbott decided to generate “COVID positive” QR codes for people she didn’t like. Abbott, like CLEAR, has not made the source code of its applications public, making their full functions unverifiable. Beyond the still restricted scopes of NAVICA and CLEAR, think of Amazon, which relies on accumulating data about people’s lives. They know so much about each individual and have so much control, and that’s not a good combination for democracy.

The best thing Bowdoin can do to counter mass surveillance, besides educating his community, is to use services that don’t monitor students. Instead of giving students Google’s cloud storage, for example, the college could host its own cloud storage using privacy-friendly free and open source software platforms, such as Nextcloud; instead of letting Microsoft Outlook read our emails and our fingerprints, with a high degree of precision, the style of our writing, why not teach students to encrypt their emails following the common “OpenPGP” encryption standard. “(Pretty Good Privacy)? We have a long way to go in mass surveillance; its ubiquity, in fact, indicates that people are drawn to it. As an educational institution dedicated to the common good, the College must help.

Lorenzo Hess is a member of the 2023 class.


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