Forty-four Democrats and one Republican signed on in support of a bill that could trample the Fourth Amendment rights of every American—and they would spend over $100 billion of your money to do it.
H.R. 6666, the COVID-19 Testing, Reaching, and Contacting Everyone (TRACE) Act, was introduced by Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) on May 1. Rush, a co-founder of an Illinois Black Panther chapter in the 1960s, purports that the premise of the bill is to create a mechanism for broad-scale digital contact tracing across the U.S.
Contact tracing is a process of identifying and informing individuals who have come into contact with someone infected by a given pathogen. These contacts are then quarantined or monitored. If an individual tests positive, they are prompted to repeat this process until transmission is controlled. Traditional models of contact tracing require substantial “boots on the ground” to monitor individuals due to the sheer volume needed to effectively account for the infected population. As a result, it is an impracticable model for successful contract tracing involving a widespread pathogen such as COVID-19. With today’s technological advances, digital contact tracing has the potential to eliminate the problem by centralizing and expediting data collection, as well as reducing reliance on trained public health personnel.
But at what cost? The TRACE Act requests $100 billion of taxpayer funding for programs that are, to a large extent, already covered under the CARES Act passed by Congress in April—and that’s just for 2020. The bill’s text conspicuously reads, “and such sums as may be necessary for each fiscal year 2021 and any subsequent fiscal year during which the emergency period continues.”
Speaking to LifeZette, Virginia congressman and House Freedom Caucus member Denver Riggleman stated, “This is a vote-getter bill that I will not support for the following reasons: Redundant funding, lack of oversight on dispersal of funds, and the authoritarian bias inherent in the bill.” Riggleman also noted that Congress just authorized an additional $25 billion for testing and $75 billion for healthcare, and that phase 2 of the coronavirus response released billions in emergency funding for testing research and development. Riggleman voiced concerns over what he perceives as the “forcing” function within the bill, stating that aspect of the legislation could very well infringe on personal liberties.
In the United States, Google and Apple have announced the development of a joint digital contact tracing program. Their program uses Bluetooth signaling to track coronavirus cases. Any individual who tests positive for coronavirus would then notify their public health officials through an app. Alerts would then be sent to everyone who was potentially exposed in the preceding two-week period. Despite the potential efficacy of such a program, their permissibility must be judged against the civil liberties that underpin American democracy. This is perhaps more crucial than ever in 2020, when many Americans believe their pursuit of liberty —inarguably tied to their Fourth Amendment right to privacy— is increasingly being infringed by the government.
In an April White House Coronavirus Task Force briefing, President Trump was asked about the concept of digital contact tracing. The president responded, “We have more of a constitutional problem than a mechanical problem.” Attorney Rob Smith, whose legal resume includes constitutional case wins in the Virginia Supreme Court, offered the following interpretation of H.R. 6666 when commenting to LifeZette: “it’s $100 billion to dish out to favorable constituencies so those aligned with Big Government can learn how to spy on their neighbors.”
For authoritarian-minded officials, the coronavirus crisis is offering a convenient pretext to consolidate power. This acute health crisis will inevitably subside; the expansion of autocratic power may wind up being one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies.