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The coronavirus pandemic has led governments around the world to employ every possible resource to stem the spread of the virus. Those efforts can only go so far, however, before they come up against limitations.
One of the barriers is privacy. Some experts see opportunities to use technology to track and potentially control the outbreak, but doing so could mean breaking existing legal and social privacy restrictions.
One of the most effective tools could be location data from phones. The simplest proposed application is to use anonymous data to monitor the effectiveness of social distancing to see whether people are following protocols and identify which areas can be safely reopened. A more intensive idea is to track the recent movements of someone who has tested positive for the virus and alert anyone who came into contact with them that they may be at elevated risk. The U.S. government reportedly met with major tech companies about gaining access to their data. Some private firms are making their data public to help track the virus.
Some countries that have been most successful in curbing outbreaks — including South Korea and Singapore — have used aggressive technological surveillance to track and isolate infected people. China’s authoritarian regime used mandatory wristbands to monitor people under quarantine and required workers to download an app that tracked their health risk. Democracies like Israel and Italy have expanded data monitoring in response to the outbreak.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for softening privacy rules argue that the U.S. should be using every possible tool to combat the virus. In the face of the current crisis, legitimate privacy concerns must take a back seat to saving lives, they argue. Tech experts say systems used to track the virus could be built to ensure as much privacy as possible through rules requiring the data be anonymous, limiting how it can be used and setting a time frame for it to be deleted. If the government is transparent about data collection, the public can make an informed decision about how much privacy it’s willing to sacrifice.
Privacy advocates argue that recent history shows neither the U.S. government nor tech companies can be trusted to responsibly use the data of American citizens. There is also concern that privacy sacrifices that may seem reasonable in the midst of a pandemic could become permanent after the virus is contained. As evidence they point to the period following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Congress authorized new surveillance measures to combat terrorism that have sparked accusations of civil liberties violations over the past two decades.
Others worry that too much data collection could inadvertently violate the core medical principle that personal health information remains anonymous. In South Korea, government disclosures of patient data contained enough information for the public to identify people by name. The Korean government reduced the amount of information in its reports out of fear that people would avoid getting tested if they were worried about the privacy of their results.
The $2 trillion economic rescue package recently passed by the Senate includes provisions for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a “public health surveillance and data collection system for coronavirus” within 30 days. The specifics of what that system will look like and whether any private tech firms will be involved have not been released.
Increased surveillance has been shown to be a key factor in containing the virus
“Many countries that have successfully contained their outbreaks, including China, South Korea, and Singapore, have utilized aggressive surveillance measures to track and isolate infected individuals. Other countries that have been trigger-shy about similar measures, like Italy and Spain, now face devastating caseloads that have overwhelmed their health-care systems.” — Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review
The government must be transparent about how it’s using our data
“The emergency circumstances at play now require marshaling all resources to help fight the pandemic. Yet even here, informing the public about the limited use of collected digital data for aggregated analysis will reflect both good policy and good sense.” — Stuart N. Brotman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Most people would accept a little less privacy if it helped save lives
“The principle we embrace is the principle of reciprocity. We recognize that our liberty is limited, but we are doing that for others.” — Public health expert Amy Fairchild to Verge
Patient privacy rules are holding back efforts to stop the virus
“Patient privacy protections are well intended, but threaten to cripple any effort to nip contagion in the bud. If a murderer were on the loose on the streets of Seattle or New York, police would alert the public of the perpetrator’s identity. But respect for patient privacy is trumping common sense by obscuring the tracks of a stealthy killer virus.” — Kim-Lien Nguyen, The Hill
The tracking system can be developed to protect as much privacy as possible
“Even so, any plan to use Americans’ location data in any manner should be accompanied by basic privacy assurances, including that private companies not use the data for non-coronavirus purposes, that the data never be shared with law enforcement or immigration agencies, and that the data be destroyed after the pandemic.” — Editorial, Washington Post
There are no laws on the books to prevent abuses
“In the absence of a federal privacy law, there’s great uncertainty and disarray around the scope of and guardrails around legitimate uses of personal information.” — Privacy advocate Omer Tene to CNET
New rules created in the panic of a crisis are destined to have major flaws
“The fast pace of the pandemic, however, is prompting governments to put in place a patchwork of digital surveillance measures in the name of their own interests, with little international coordination on how appropriate or effective they are.” — Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times
Anonymous data rarely stays anonymous
“Imagine a world where the government can trace where you were and who you met. Or worse, imagine that Facebook or WhatsApp could do that and then allow the government to send a warning message to all your friends if you test positive for COVID-19. How long do you think it will take your friends to piece together who got infected?” — Co-Pierre Georg, Conversation
The government and big tech companies have proved they can’t be trusted
“We don’t live in a culture of public trust when it comes to data. We live in this age that has been called the age of surveillance capitalism, where … our data is abused and exploited.” — Tech ethicist David Leslie to Science
Temporary limits on privacy would likely become permanent
“We should think back to 9/11 and the Patriot Act and warrantless surveillance, and the fact that ever since then we’ve been trying to put that genie back in the bottle and create better oversight, better auditing. Right now, if we rush forward with, say, tracking people’s location or tracking people’s temperature, tracking people’s interactions with others, that could very quickly lead us into, I think, a dystopian world.” — Digital Democracy Project director Alexander Howard to Marketplace
The government would quickly expand data use beyond just stopping the virus
“I think we have to be on the lookout for ‘scope creep’ — contexts where we demand emergency powers that risk privacy and then fail to walk back after the emergency passes.” — Privacy expert Jennifer King to CNN Business
Data tracking risks legitimizing privacy violations made by big tech companies
“Acting like a public service also means greater legitimacy, prominence and priority for what Facebook and other big tech companies do normally, when there isn’t a life-threatening pandemic sweeping the globe. And increasingly, what such companies have been doing is harvesting more and more of our data in a way that ultimately erodes our personal autonomy and agency.” — Simon Chandler, Forbes
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