March 28, 2020

The U.S. government has begun to use cellphone data to get a better sense of people's movement in up to as many as 500 cities amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, The Wall Street Journal reports.

The tactic is not meant to track individuals, and names aren't included in the data, but instead is geared toward figuring out where people might be congregating in large numbers as calls for social distancing and lockdowns become the norm across the country. In doing so, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in conjunction with state and local officials, hope to get an idea of how the coronavirus might be spreading so they can further curb its advance.

The data, which is coming from the less-regulated mobile advertising industry rather than cell phone carriers, could also provide information on whether people are complying with their area's shelter-in-place or stay-at-home orders.

Despite the intentions of the efforts, such projects will undoubtedly raise concerns about government invasion of privacy, and, while even some privacy activists understand the necessity of such efforts, they want stronger safeguards in place. Read more at The Wall Street Journal and read more about coronavirus surveillance here at The Week. Tim O'Donnell

December 23, 2019

A popular chat app called ToTok is actually a spying tool used by the United Arab Emirates government, The New York Times reports.

ToTok is described as being a secure messaging app and has been downloaded millions of times on the Google and Apple stores, and it was even recently among the most popular social apps in the United States, although most users are located in the Emirates, the Times says. But it's reportedly "used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound, and image of those who install it on their phones."

The firm behind the app, the Times reports, is "most likely a front company" associated with a cyberintelligence and hacking firm that's under FBI investigation. U.S. officials have reportedly informed some allies about the app.

"Instead of paying hackers to gain access to a target's phone ... ToTok gave the Emirati government a way to persuade millions of users to hand over their most personal information for free," the Times writes.

The app has now been removed by Google and Apple. ToTok cites "technical issues," but the Times' Nicole Perlroth writes it "was removed because of our story." Read the full report at The New York Times. Brendan Morrow

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