Privacy, Freedom, and The Less United States

There is a 5 kilometer loop of road that can be run along starting from and ending at my house. This is the standard route that I have run along a few times every week since coming back to New Jersey at the beginning of social distancing in New York, the day after most of my friends companies went remote, which was the same day that I had plans to go to the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Fortunately, we decided not to go. Those of us that planned to go ended up getting together for drinks in the East Village and watching the games on TV. We decided not to go after news broke that March Madness would be played without fans but we did not yet know that the NBA season would be suspended later that night, that March Madness would be cancelled completely the next day, and that the games we were watching that night would be the last televised basketball games for a long while. I am grateful that we decided not to go to what was probably the largest gathering of people that night in what has now been recognized as the most infected city in the world and was probably well on its way to becoming so at that point. I had written weeks prior about my level of concern for how the coronavirus could develop, and my concern itself had begun to develop weeks before I decided to write about it, but it was my idea to buy tickets for the games that night and ultimately my decision to pull the plug on the plan at the 11th hour. The lesson, if there is one, is to trust your gut and to act in accordance with your beliefs even if they are different than those of most of the people around you, even if they are different than what the mainstream media is saying, or what the the president is tweeting, or what the World Health Organization recommends. Of course, this is not a flawless rule that applies in all situations and it does not mean that you should disregard social distancing guidelines just because most people and organizations are now on board with them, but if your beliefs seem to be more responsible, conservative, and/or safer for you and others, and if you have a lot of conviction in them, then go with your gut. Fortunately, though I take full responsibility for initiating the issue in the first place, I was able to resolve it by going with my gut in the end.

Anyway, back to that run that I mentioned, I usually stop one tenth of a mile before my driveway as that is when the mileage tracker on my phone says that I have hit 3 miles on the dot. Today, as I walked from that point to the driveway, I walked over two wires that I had never walked over before. The wires, laid a foot or two apart from and parallel to each other, were nailed into the road and connected at the end to a brick-sized plastic box with a logo on it that said “MetroCount“. The box was attached to a white-painted wooden sign on the side of the road that says “entering” on the top line, and the name of my township below it. The sign was permanent and I had seen it thousands of times before but the box and the wires were new and today was the first time I had seen them. Between the newness and the placement of the box combined with the name that was on it, it was not difficult to surmise that this was a system installed yesterday to track the traffic in and out of my township, I assume, to measure adherence to social distancing orders which in New Jersey mandate working from home for non-essential businesses and restraining from non-essential travel. I could be wrong about any of that, but it does not so much matter as I am only bringing it up as a means by which to write about something more important than the number of cars going in and out of my small and rural New Jersey township each day.

The thing that I want to touch on today is how we are going to emerge from the quarantined state that we are in today as a country. The first thing that I think is important to note is that we may not emerge from it as a completely united country at all. Rather, we may emerge from it as a collection of potentially less united states. Governor Gavin Newsom has gotten into a somewhat frightening and potentially foreshadowing habit of referring to California as a “nation-state” recently. At least 15 states have now placed travel restrictions on Americans coming in from other states and it seems probable that most of the rest them will follow suit. There is even one North Carolinian county that is ironically called “Dare County” which is not letting anyone in without a permanent residency entry permit, so things could go further in that direction too. Different states and counties will come up with different approaches and solutions because they are comprised of different demographics and governed by individuals and groups with different perspectives on how best to mitigate this crisis and eventually emerge from it. There will be overlap, of course, and hopefully some degree of national leadership but as long as it is every state for themselves it seems more likely that states will social distance themselves right away from each other and away from the whole. If secession was not already a realistic possibility for a large and left-heavy state like California in a scenario in which Trump is re-elected, it sure seems to me to be one now.

There is another aspect related to the nature of our emergence from this crisis which is arguably more impactful than a situation in which states could go separate ways in their attempts to save their own people’s lives and livelihoods. That aspect involves how we handle things from a freedom and privacy perspective using technologies that exist today and which will be developed tomorrow. The MetroCount system that I ran across today seems relatively harmless. As best I could tell from the company’s website, the device is counting aggregate vehicles anonymously in terms of traffic into and out of the county via this individual road. That seems harmless, but what if there was also a camera that captured license plates, a system for connecting that license plate to an individual, and a $1,000 dollar fine for anyone who crosses the wires in quarantined townships? That seems like something a lot of people might not like, and I do not believe it is much of a stretch at all. That technology and those systems already exist. That scenario may be controversial but not compared to another scenario in which the wires would be installed at the ends of everyone’s driveways, instead of on the roads, and people would be charged a large fine just for leaving their homes. It is not impossible to imagine a situation in which people could be fined simply for googling “what are the best ways to circumvent driveway wires”. This is no doubt a further out scenario, but compared to the premise of the movie Minority Report in which murderers are arrested and convicted before committing the crime, the concept of being fined based on your Google history seems relatively civil. The key word there is “relatively”.

While it will be important to open the economy back up as soon as is reasonably and responsibly possible, the ways in which we do that in terms of the infrastructure that will need to be built and installed and the policies that will need to be agreed upon and enforced will be very important. As I have written previously, once the defaults are set, human tendencies do not naturally go against them or overturn them, especially when they are very complex. I doubt we will see American law enforcement welding shut doors of apartments to force quarantines, as was reported to have been done in Wuhan, but other non-physical methods of mitigating the virus could be just as, if not more, consequential. Will we have mandatory location tracking on our phones soon and forever? Could we do something similar but make it voluntary even though non-participation probably means more deaths? Could we make it mandatory but temporary and anonymous so that people can be alerted when someone they have been in close proximity to has tested positive, without necessarily needing to know who that person was, and without any central authority needing to know who any of the people are? These are questions that I have not thought about long enough or done nearly enough work on to form an opinion on or propose an optimal solution for. Still, I can appreciate the vast magnitudes of the impacts that these decisions will have on our communities, states, countries, and the world. I hope that leading decision-makers around the world are conscious of how powerful the defaults they set today will remain in perpetuity. I hope that they make the best decisions that they possibly can and that they do so quickly but do not hurry. I am an optimist by nature and by practice and while I am preparing for the worst, I am hoping for the best.

Today, in my township, it started with a MetroCount box. Soon, but not too soon, we will see how it ends.