As Hawaii considers surveilling visitors to the islands during their required 14-day quarantine, the state’s preliminary proposals are attracting criticism.

Tourists could be required to wear ankle monitors, subject themselves to GPS tracking or facial recognition technology, and/or be quarantined in a guarded facility for the duration of their two-week isolation period. The goal would be to enforce shelter-in-place requirements amid the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of reducing the spread of the illness. As of Tuesday, Hawaii reached 609 confirmed cases including 16 deaths.

The potential policies are still being vetted, Attorney General Clare Connors said at a Senate committee meeting on Friday, but they’re already getting some pushback.

“There definitely has to be a monitoring system in place, but it doesn’t have to consist of drastic measures,” said House Speaker Scott Saiki. “Some of these proposals sound a little too drastic, a little too extreme.”

ankle electronic monitoring
Tourists may be required to wear ankle monitors to ensure compliance with the state’s 14-day quarantine rule. Alcohol Monitoring Systems Inc.

Malia Hill, policy director for the think tank Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said the ideas are “positively Orwellian.”

“There are serious questions in terms of civil liberties and privacy,” she said.

What officials are considering sounds like a “prison camp,” according to Hill. She believes they are likely to do longterm harm to Hawaii’s reputation as a vacation destination.

“Can Hawaii recover from people posting on Facebook, ‘Just got to Hawaii. Here’s my ankle monitor tan’?” Hill asked.

State agencies are studying how to ensure public health and safety while opening up sectors of the economy, including tourism, according to Krishna Jayaram, a spokesman for the AG’s office.

“The various ideas being evaluated for tracking visitors in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, are right now just that, ideas,” he said in an emailed statement. “Given that we are an island state heavily dependent on tourism, there is focus and forward planning now on how we can get back closer to normal while adequately ensuring that any influx of visitors does not put our residents at risk.”

Ways and Means Chair Donovan M. Dela Cruz during hearing on funding emergency appropriations in response to future COVID-19 Coronavirus health concerns in Hawaii.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said all practical and legal options are on the table to contain the spread of COVID-19. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, said officials need to consider all practical and legal options at a time when there’s no vaccine for the deadly virus. Even if conditions improve over the summer, public health officials are predicting a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall.

“Health and safety come first,” he said. “Tourism is not going to be what it was.”

Jayaram did not answer specific questions about the potential tracking methods but said state attorneys will ensure that quarantine enforcement methods are legal.

They’re looking at examples in other islands, states and tourist hot spots “with similar democratic and civil-liberty traditions,” he said. He didn’t specify which locations.

“We take that responsibility very seriously and will be advising our clients when and if certain ideas are not allowed,” he said.

Monitoring Tactics Elsewhere

Governments in other places are using surveillance technology to enforce stay-home orders.

In Kentucky, a handful of individuals who were exposed to COVID-19 were ordered by a judge to wear monitoring devices on their ankles after they refused to isolate themselves, CNN reported.

Taiwan is using a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” to keep people in their homes during quarantine, according to Reuters. The system alerts police and local officials within 15 minutes when people in quarantine move away from their home base or turn their phones off. Officials call people twice a day to ensure they haven’t left home without their phones.

Hong Kong is using location-tracking wristbands, Singapore is texting citizens who must click a link to demonstrate they are home and Thailand is requiring arrivals to download a contact tracing app, Reuters reported. South Korea and Israel are using satellite technology to track individuals and see where infections may have passed from person to person.

Saiki said he believes the public understands there may be some “infringement on freedom and mobility” for the benefit of public health. However, he said there’s no need to treat the general public like inmates. People have a reasonable expectation of privacy, he said.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said some of the ideas being considered are “too extreme.” Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

“This is not a criminal situation,” he said. “This is a public health monitoring situation. The approaches we use need to be tailored toward maintaining public health.”

Hill said she is deeply concerned not only about a loss of freedom during the pandemic, but also after.

“It’s a very short hop from ‘It’s OK for tourists’ to ‘It’s OK for any number of other groups,'” she said.

Asked about this concern, Jayaram acknowledged that life will likely be different post-COVID-19.

“I do hope we get closer to how things used to be before the pandemic, but part of the new normal might be that the state has to re-think certain aspects of the tourist experience here in Hawaii,” he said.

Any surveillance strategies for quarantining people should be done in consultation with public health professionals, said Joshua Wisch, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. They should be regularly reevaluated and time-limited, he said. And invasive methods like ankle-monitoring should only be used as a last resort.

“Any time you start pushing involuntarily compliance and punitive measures, that usually starts to break down trust,” he said.

Hill is troubled by the lack of opportunities for the public to weigh in on these ideas. At Friday’s meeting, no public testimony was accepted. Citizens and business owners should have a say in how the state keeps them safe, Hill said.

The idea that you could put out a policy that could really, really harm Hawaii’s tourism industry and the economy with no public feedback is astonishing,” she said. 

“There’s a way to phase in letting people back in while watching for signs of infections and taking practical, limited steps to test people, without infringing upon their liberty to move around with government supervision.”

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