How one California county used Big Brother to crack down on a church that wouldn’t comply with lockdowns

We need restrictions on how local governments and law enforcement can use our data.

During the height of the pandemic, many local governments created a lot of rules about what people could and couldn’t do. In many places, gatherings of more than a few people were forbidden. That included churches. We now know it did little to nothing to stop the spread of COVID-19.

At the time, though, there was significant debate on the matter. In Santa Clara County, a megachurch known as Calvary Chapel started off by obeying the lockdown orders. Their doors were shuttered. They were at first, anyway. Soon, they opened their doors and began holding regular services. 

“God doesn’t want us to isolate ourselves,” Pastor Mike McClure reportedly said. “All of us need to be in the sanctuary. I don’t care what they say, I’m never again going to close the doors, ever.”

Now, if you recall the hysteria of the time, you know this was controversial. What should be even more controversial, though, is how local officials responded. The Mercury News reports

“Newly unearthed court documents reveal a bevy of extraordinary surveillance measures Santa Clara County used in trying to prove a San Jose megachurch and its congregants were violating COVID rules at the height of the pandemic.

In its ongoing legal battle with Calvary Chapel, Santa Clara County used mobile phone data to map concentrations of congregants gathering on the church’s Hillsdale Avenue grounds and conducted multiple stealthy inspections in late 2020 and early 2021 that experts say raise major civil liberties questions.

The use of third-party phone data — a technique known as ‘geofencing’ — and the numerous visits by enforcement officers reveal the lengths to which a county known for its strict COVID response was willing to go in order to prove that the church was breaking the rules.”

Now the county wants $13 million in public health fines but doesn’t seem to understand that their response was far worse than anything Calvary Chapel is accused of having done.

In this day and age, our cell phones are basically extensions of who we are. Some people believe their phone choice illustrates some deeply-held value. An iPhone means one thing while a Samsung means something else. 

As such, people carry them with them everywhere. After all, that was the point in having a cell phone in the first place.

For the county to begin surveillance of people who were simply worshipping is bad. What it suggests for the future is even worse.

The county, on the other hand, claims that the data was anonymized. More from Mercury News

“County Counsel James Williams, whose office is pursuing the fines against Calvary, defended the use of the mobile phone data, which is anonymized, and the observation efforts by inspection officers.

He said it’s likely the first time the surveillance technology has been used by the county in litigation but contended that Calvary Chapel was a unique public health hazard during the pandemic to which the county was compelled to respond. He confirmed the county has not tracked the cellphones of individuals at the church.”

That all sounds nice, but it’s also difficult to accept at face value. For example, over at The Free Press, Bari Weiss notes some concerns about how the company tasked with this effort, SafeGraph, gathered the information:

“SafeGraph’s data is supposed to be anonymized, but human rights attorney and information law specialist Irina Tsukerman said that using digital surveillance could mean a potentially serious violation of civil liberties.

‘If they were employing electronic surveillance, there has to be an approval process for that,’ said Tsukerman. ‘Information gathered that way could be used to engage in intimidation tactics that would go beyond the county’s mandate to ensure public health.’ (Santa Clara County recently told Fox News that it did not use GPS technology to track churchgoers. Rather, they used ‘an after-the-fact analysis of third-party, commercially available aggregate data, done for litigation purposes in order to respond to Calvary’s own allegations in a lawsuit that Calvary itself filed.’)”

The story is still ongoing and there will likely be more and more developments, but at its heart, there are serious issues here, and I’m not talking about a virus.

For one thing, these were free people who had the right to make decisions for themselves. The lockdown orders interfered with that, determining what people could and could not do. It’s especially egregious in the fact that none of it worked, but it would have been wrong even if it had been a success.

Then you have the freedom of religion aspect. As McClure noted, the church and its members had the right to worship without government interference, which is precisely what was going on.

Finally, you have the very creepy electronic surveillance aspect of this issue. I know they say the data was anonymized but is that really the issue?

I mean, sure, they don’t know exactly which people went to which service, but that also wasn’t what they were looking for. 

What’s more, they didn’t need a warrant for this information because the data is sold to the public. That means if you’ve got the money, you can pay to see how many people go virtually anywhere in the world. 

With Calvary Chapel, SafeGraph basically put a cordon around the church and tracked from there, but the question is, what stops a city or county from doing that around the entire city? 

“But the pandemic is over,” you might say, which is fine, except this goes beyond COVID-19 and lockdowns.

With this particular bit of technology, especially if local governments are free to use it however they like, police can monitor the comings and goings of pretty much everyone. Too many people swing by your house to pick up the cakes you bake as a side hustle? Code enforcement comes and levels hefty fines on you because you’re not using a professional kitchen.

And that’s the least of it.

Imagine you have folks stopping by a little more often than officials think you should. Next thing you know, your front door is busted in by the city’s drug squad because they think you’re dealing, when really you were just getting visits from friends because you’d been suffering from an illness.

The possibilities, while hypothetical, are nearly endless, and that’s the problem with this. If I can think of this many abuses of this data while sitting here typing away at my keyboard, what can all the public officials throughout the nation figure out?

We need restrictions on how local governments and law enforcement can use our data if we want to keep our civil liberties intact.

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Tom Knighton
Tom Knighton
Tom Knighton is a Navy veteran, a former newspaperman, a novelist, and a lifetime shooter who has increasingly focused on Second Amendment issues. He lives with his family in Southwest Georgia.