How location data can help track and stop the spread of COVID-19

insider@insider.com (Hiatt Woods)
·8 min read

Following is a transcription of the video.

Narrator: As COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, one tactic in particular, called contact tracing, has been highly effective in countries like Taiwan, Singapore, and Iceland. But there is a trade-off. Contact tracing asks us all to share data with the government and corporations, information that some people prefer to keep private. So the question becomes: How much privacy would you be willing to trade to save lives?

The specifics of contact tracing vary by country, but the basics remain the same. Step one: identify and isolate confirmed cases of COVID-19. Step two: trace their movement and contact with others backwards, finding people who may be at risk without knowing it. Step three: quarantine and track the movements of confirmed cases going forward.

Syra Madad: It's a very lengthy process that requires many different steps, but at the end what you're trying to achieve is to break that chain of transmission, so that way you don't have new outbreaks, if you will, or new cases of the disease itself.

Narrator: Rather than spending time treating new cases, contact tracing allows officials to stop the spread of the virus in the first place. That's how countries that have implemented contact tracing have been able to flatten the curve. This requires a lot of manpower. It also requires a monumental amount of data, which is where the issue of privacy comes into play.

To make contact tracing truly effective, it is important to have verifiable records of people's whereabouts and contact with others. Some countries have developed apps that trace your cellphone's GPS signal, thus keeping a log of every place you've been. To many, that might sound like the start of a dystopian horror movie: the government tracking your every move and knowing everyone you speak with. On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic seems straight out of a horror film itself, and the results of contact tracing speak for themselves.

Take Singapore for example. The number of confirmed cases in the country is around 4,500 as of April 16, despite being relatively near China, the country where experts believe the virus originated. Singapore was aggressive in adopting contact tracing. The country utilized the national health service, police detectives, and a contact-tracing app to track the spread of the virus. Their contact-tracing program was so effective that about 40% of people in the first wave of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country discovered that they had been exposed to the virus when they received a phone call from Singapore's Ministry of Health. The call informed them of when, where, and how they came into contact with the virus and told them to be tested and isolated.

Meanwhile, in the United States, government authorities have not yet aggressively pursued contact tracing as a tactic to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, despite the fact that there are now more confirmed cases in the US than any other country in the world. We saw this play out in New York City, where the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was diagnosed on March 1. Just a week prior, the woman who tested positive had returned to New York from Doha, Qatar, landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Public officials promised to track down every person who had been aboard her flight to identify other potential cases. But according to The New York Times, that never happened.

A lack of available tests and the uniquely dense population of New York City also contributed to the rapid spread of the virus in the city and the state, where more than 240,000 cases have now been reported. And while New York did engage in contact tracing to an extent, it was nowhere near as vigorous as in countries where the practice has been highly effective.

Madad: China, for example, implemented a huge workforce, and they were able to do tens of thousands of contact tracing every single day. We do not have that infrastructure here in the United States yet. Another thing to note is that they were just doing in a very small area of China. We would need to do it throughout the United States because we are having hot spots throughout the United States.

Narrator: In New York City, where the population is over 8.3 million, 50 disease detectives were deployed to trace the spread of the virus in the early days of the outbreak. That's only one disease detective for every 166,000 people. Wuhan, China, where the crisis is thought to have originated, has a slightly higher population. There, more than 9,000 disease detectives were deployed to trace known cases. This disparity is not unique to New York, however. In the United States, only about 3,600 disease detectives have been trained by the Epidemic Intelligence Service program since 1951. That's for a population of over 329 million people.

While manual contact tracing is important, data helps. Singapore has released an app that not only tracks users' location, but also uses Bluetooth to record proximity to others who are using the app. And though manual contact tracing may not be as robust in the United States, data collection certainly is. Citizens' movements are on full display via Silicon Valley companies big and small. Lesser-known entities like Cuebiq and Unacast have already been providing tracking data to the public. And while Unacast collects its data via an opt-in app, Cuebiq says only that it relies on "Cuebiq's first party data" to create its interactive map. So, with the technology and data for contact tracing readily available, the question remains, why was the US so slow to adopt contact tracing on a wider scale?

The answer may be our own rights to privacy and how dearly we hold them. Americans' attitudes about their private data being shared are well documented. Wiretapping phones of American citizens was a hot-button political issue in the not-so-distant past. And, more recently, large corporations mining us for data has come to the forefront of the national consciousness. Those attitudes may shift as the COVID-19 crisis continues.

Madad: So, in order for us to get to a post-coronavirus-disease era where we're able to lift some of these social-distancing restrictions and, you know, for all intents and purposes, resume whatever our normal lives would look like, we need to make sure we're able to implement rigorous contact tracing to be able to isolate those individuals and quarantine individuals that may have the disease itself.

Narrator: While a recent poll showed that a majority of Americans agree that measures like closing schools and businesses are necessary to combat the coronavirus, they also share a desire to return the day-to-day operations of the country to as close to normal as possible as soon and as safely as possible. At the same time, health experts predict a second wave of the virus to hit sometime in 2020 or 2021. So offering up our location information might be the best way to get through this.

Madad: Safeguarding privacy is something that is going to be a huge roadblock. But, at the same time, I think that we're living in a very technology-savvy society where we should be able to, with some degree, you know, work around that. I think we can have this even as a voluntary basis. Being able to consent, in a way, in letting them know this is obviously what's great not just for them, but for the greater community if we wanna resume our normal life, whatever that's, again, gonna look like, you know, this is something that needs to be done.

Narrator: The tech world has already started to publicly collect this data. Facebook's Data for Good program has created data maps that show distributions of people reporting COVID symptoms, density of at-risk populations, areas that are socially connected to current hot spots, and more. Apple and Google have announced plans for a joint venture to create an opt-in contact-tracing app that would be compatible with both Apple and Android phones. But with this push for more government access to location-tracking data also comes another push for more user protection. As of now, there are no comprehensive federal laws around data privacy in the United States. It's happened only on a state level.

In 2018, the California Consumer Privacy Act was enacted, giving California users the legal right to know what data is collected, the right to delete personal information held by businesses, and the right to opt out of the sale of personal information. Other states are following California's lead. Nevada passed similar legislation, and New York, Texas, and Washington have also proposed legislation similar to California's privacy act. In other states, legal rights to data privacy are not nearly as clear or strong. So in the case of the US, what we do know is that large amounts of data, including location tracking, are already being collected. The questions become what we as a nation will do with that data to confront the COVID-19 crisis, whether the public is willing to release it, and how we will protect that data going forward.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2020.

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