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COVID-19, Digital Surveillance, and Privacy: Fourth Amendment Considerations

CRS Legal Sidebar – COVID-19, Digital Surveillance, and Privacy: Fourth Amendment Considerations, April 16, 2020:  “As COVID-19 has spread across the globe, countries like South Korea and Israel have employed digital surveillance measures using cell phone location data, among other things, in an effort to track and limit the virus’s transmission. In the United States, the federal government and some state and local governments have reportedly begun to gather geolocation data voluntarily provided by the mobile advertising industry to assess how people are continuing to move and congregate during the pandemic. Technology companies such as Google and Facebook have also discussed leveraging some of their aggregated and anonymized location data for similar purposes. Moreover, the recently passed CARES Act provides, as part of new funding for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), that the CDC must report to Congress within 30 days on “the development of a public health surveillance and data collection system for coronavirus.” In light of these developments, some commentators have speculated about the potential in the United States for more invasive, obligatory data collection and tracking practices emulating the measures taken in some other parts of the world.Actions by the federal or state governments to surveil U.S. citizens in response to the COVID-19 pandemic could raise a host of legal issues, but as one commentator recently recognized, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution may “determine the outer bounds of permissible surveillance at the federal and state levels” in this context. This Sidebar accordingly provides an overview of the Fourth Amendment and certain relevant doctrines and exceptions before discussing how the relevant legal frameworks could apply to coronavirus-related government surveillance…”

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