Sen. Lisa Keim – Our Rights Do Not Fade Away in a Crisis
Hello, my name is Lisa Keim and I serve as the State Senator for District 18.
In times of crisis, our rational fear of danger causes us to seek effective ways to preserve safety. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, for example, the U.S. government sought, and Americans generally agreed to allow, greatly increased powers of surveillance to identify potential terrorists and prevent future attacks.
We are, again, in the midst of a crisis, this one caused by the COVID-19 virus that is threatening lives worldwide. Naturally, we want to do all that is possible to prevent the outbreak spread.
One method of prevention is to track the movements of infected people and those with whom they’ve had contact. This is a well-intentioned idea, but this “tracking and tracing” must be mindful of privacy and done only with consent of the people involved.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, in part, that “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
One primary method of tracking people’s movements is through cell phone location data. While the Founding Fathers did not carry an iPhone, if alive today, they would have classified this type of data as “papers and effects”. These cannot be seized without a warrant based on probable cause of a crime.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak I have heard a startling number of people suggest that government can and should track private citizens.
The Bill of Rights, including the Fourth Amendment, was intended to protect American citizens from the actions of the government, but also against what the founders described as “Mob Rule” or a situation where the passion of the moment causes people to act without sufficiently considering the consequences. In such situations, the Constitution stands between citizens and government oppression that uses a crisis to overstep its authority.
The notion that government should collect this highly personal data without our consent is not idle chatter. It is being promoted at the highest levels of government.
Recently, for example, the governor of Rhode Island suggested that the state use the data from citizen’s cell phones to track the past movements of those who have been infected by COVID-19.
The Governor of New York announced this week that his state will spend $10 million on a “Coronavirus Tracking System,” designed to identify people who have come in contact with the virus and isolate them.
In the crisis mentality of a worldwide pandemic, such government actions, unthinkable in normal circumstances, can become accepted out of fear. This is the very definition of “mob rule” and we should be quite apprehensive that it has lately reached all the way to the White House.
The president’s medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently addressed a question about the possibility of Americans being required to carry identification to show whether the bearer had been infected or not. Shockingly, he answered in the affirmative. Saying:
“This is something that’s being discussed. I think it might actually have some merit…”
The idea that the government could force us to carry papers that reveal a piece of our private medical history should outrage all Americans. The moment that we begin to single out a group of people based on health indications we begin to institutionalize open discrimination.
The latest stimulus package included $500 million to build a “surveillance and data collection system” for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We must remain vigilant on how this system is developed.
Although medical surveillance appears a legitimate response, it threatens a citizen’s right to privacy and freedom of expression.
The invasion of personal privacy would offer the government strong technical surveillance tools to help in containing and rolling back a pandemic, but once the government steps in to take away rights and privacies, we may not get them back. These powers may also be expanded for other situations or abused.
Maintaining our liberty, even when confronted by great crises, or when majorities of people think it is acceptable, is the specific purpose of the Bill of Rights. We should never waver from adhering to these protections.
Again, I am Senator Lisa Keim of District 18.
Please be safe and be well. God bless.