When Tara Trunfio stepped off her flight from Boulder to Maui, she didn’t see the leis and grass skirts that so many visitors expect. Instead, the 23-year-old saw masked officials warning that visitors who don’t comply with the islands’ 14-day quarantine requirement would be arrested.
A Hawaiian get-away sounds magical to the millions of cooped-up Americans who want to trade in their virtual beach background for the real thing. But a trip to the beach can quickly turn into a stay in jail. That’s just what happened to Trunfio, who drew national attention this month after being arrested for allegedly violating quarantine.
For years, Americans have debated the shape their national borders should take, but the newest border controls have increasingly been built on state lines. We’re a long way off from Berlin Wall-style barricades along your local interstate, but in the COVID-19 era governors have issued quarantine orders for out-of-state residents and returning visitors. Rhode Island, Florida, and Texas have stopped out-of-state drivers (sometimes using the National Guard) to remind them of quarantine requirements and obtain a signed compliance agreement.
But the most alarming restrictions come from a state that doesn’t have to worry about people driving into town.
In recent weeks, Hawaii has rolled out the so-called “Safe Travels System,” giving officials information on how travelers comply with the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement. On its face, the plan mirrors those imposed at a growing number of national borders—the U.S. included—in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. For jurisdictions with few COVID-19 cases, forcing newcomers to quarantine in hopes of containing the spread of a deadly illness can be a perfectly rational public policy.
But as lockdowns show signs of easing in some states, the system in Hawaii is bringing the potential civil-liberties pitfalls of disease detective work into clearer—and more disturbing—focus.
If you forget to register before you get on a plane to Hawaii right now, you’re in for a show. If you refuse to register or provide a false contact number upon arrival, police can arrest you on the spot. Some authorities are going even further, searching property tax records to verify travelers’ lodgings. Airport personnel roll mobile kiosks from gate to gate, checking phone numbers and addresses, making 7,600 phone calls in just the first 2 weeks to ensure numbers are legit and that people are staying put.
But while Safe Travels may be a practical requirement to enter Hawaii, it’s not a legal one. There’s no law or regulation requiring travelers to use the app. Even the Safe Travels website couches things in voluntary terms: “All persons traveling to or within Hawaii are encouraged to register your trip into the Hawaii Safe Travels System to expedite your exit from the airport.” But when a Washington man recently arrived in Honolulu without a confirmed address or proof he had funds to pay for a place to stay, he was sent back.
For the travelers who do “volunteer” to use the Safe Travels System, it’s not enough to just register with the site. For two weeks, travelers have to check in daily, reporting their health condition and address. Safe Travels will then use travelers’ location data to confirm where travelers are. While Americans are being asked to give sensitive health and location data to Hawaii officials, those same officials are reluctant to share how that data is being used. (The Hawaii Department of Transportation and governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Safe Travels’ FAQ website claims that data is only shared with “authorized personnel responsible for quarantine monitoring and enforcement,” but we have no way of knowing who those people are. And even if it’s just law enforcement agencies— as opposed to private entities—enforcing quarantine, that is no reassurance at all. Effectively, Americans have no way of knowing how much data a state might collect on them, how long it is held, or if Tapiki, the private firm that co-developed Safe Travels, has access to the data. (Tapiki did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
If and when the app gets it wrong, there’s reason to fear users of color will pay the price. As GPS signals are often less accurate in densely constructed urban areas, lower-income travelers might be at higher risk of a false alarm. And it’s completely unclear how individuals will navigate Hawaii’s requirements when they stay in locations without reliable internet or cell service. Many of those most at risk from COVID-19, such as the elderly and communities of color, also lack access to a smartphone. As a result, Hawaii is threatening to turn the digital divide into a criminal offense.
The consequences are enormous. At a time when COVID-19 can easily turn detention into a death sentence, Hawaii authorities have already arrested approximately 20 people for violating quarantine, including a Florida man and an Illinois woman after witnesses saw them with shopping bags. A California man similarly was charged after allegedly traveling from his Hawaiian home to Costco. More recently, a second Colorado tourist was being sought after police learned she had canceled her reservation at the hostel where she registered to stay.
Even when this surveillance web paints an accurate picture of human behavior, it erodes public trust and cooperation at a time when they are needed most. In-state residents must quarantine at the address listed on their government-issued ID, creating an acute risk for many, such as survivors of domestic violence and those living with immunocompromised relatives or roommates. For undocumented Americans, the system creates yet another tool with which people could theoretically be tracked by ICE, coming just months after the Trump Administration reportedly purchased similar location data from commercial vendors.
Hawaii’s case is likely the most extreme to date, but it’s far from unique. In Washington State, civil rights watchdogs expressed alarm that the state was implementing manual contact-tracing requirements without adequate safeguards. Under the state’s effort, not only would 1,400 contact tracers be hired, but businesses would be required to keep a log of every customer they contacted. Across the country, New York City’s top civil rights watchdog expressed similar alarm at the lack of safeguards for data collected by the city and state’s combined contract tracing program, which may hire as many as 18,000 tracers. And at the same time, Silicon Valley’s effort to get into the COVID-19 tracking business has seen sharp pushback from civil rights and immigrant justice groups, including our own.
America stands at a crossroads in the COVID-19 fight, and the choices we make now may impact our society for generations. For those trying to fend off a loss of life unparalleled in modern history, the call for surveillance is increasingly urgent. But surveillance skeptics not only question the privacy costs of a public health dragnet, they fear new tracking tools will harm public health instead of helping. Without safeguards and public trust, surveillance measures might drive those on the margins of our society into the shadows, undermining the very contact tracing this technology is supposed to help.
For states that erect new barriers, it may provide a temporary relief from the onslaught of new cases. But it will also deeply damage the sense of national unity that we will need for our long, unrelenting fights against disease and death.