The COVID-19 pandemic has placed public health and personal privacy on a collision course, as smartphone technology has completely rewritten the book on contact tracing.
It's not surprising that an autocratic regime like China would adopt such measures, but democracies such as Israel have taken a similar path.
The gold standard – patient interviews and detective work – had been in place for more than a century. It's been all but replaced by GPS data in smartphones, which allows contact tracing to occur not only virtually in real time, but with vastly more precision.
China has gone the furthest in using such tech to monitor and prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It developed an app called Health Code to determine which of its citizens are infected or at risk of becoming infected. It has assigned each individual a color code – red, yellow or green – and restricts their movement depending on their assignment. It has also leveraged its millions of public video cameras in conjunction with facial recognition tech to identify people in public who are not wearing masks.
It's not surprising that an autocratic regime like China would adopt such measures, but democracies such as Israel have taken a similar path. The national security agency Shin Bet this week began analyzing all personal cellphone data under emergency measures approved by the government. It texts individuals when it's determined they had been in contact with someone who had the coronavirus. In Spain and China, police have sent drones aloft searching for people violating stay-at-home orders. Commands to disperse can be issued through audio systems built into the aircraft. In the U.S., efforts are underway to lift federal restrictions on drones so that police can use them to prevent people from gathering.
The chief executive of a drone manufacturer in the U.S. aptly summed up the situation in an interview with the Financial Times: "It seems a little Orwellian, but this could save lives."
Epidemics and how they're surveilled often pose thorny dilemmas, according to Craig Klugman, a bioethicist and professor of health sciences at DePaul University in Chicago. "There's always a moral issue to contact tracing," he said, adding that the issue doesn't change by nation, only in the way it's resolved.
"Once certain privacy barriers have been breached, it can be difficult to roll them back again."
In China, there's little to no expectation for privacy, so their decision to take the most extreme measures makes sense to Klugman. "In China, the community comes first. In the U.S., individual rights come first," he said.
As the U.S. has scrambled to develop testing kits and manufacture ventilators to identify potential patients and treat them, individual rights have mostly not received any scrutiny. However, that could change in the coming weeks.
The American approach is also leaning toward using smartphone apps, but in a way that may preserve the privacy of users. Researchers at MIT have released a prototype known as Private Kit: Safe Paths. Patients diagnosed with the coronavirus can use the app to disclose their location trail for the prior 28 days to other users without releasing their specific identity. They also have the option of sharing the data with public health officials. But such an app would only be effective if there is a significant number of users.
Singapore is offering a similar app to its citizens known as TraceTogether, which uses both GPS and Bluetooth pings among users to trace potential encounters. It's being offered on a voluntary basis.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the leading nonprofit organization defending civil liberties in the digital world, said it is monitoring how these apps are developed and deployed. "Governments around the world are demanding new dragnet location surveillance powers to contain the COVID-19 outbreak," it said in a statement. "But before the public allows their governments to implement such systems, governments must explain to the public how these systems would be effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19. There's no questioning the need for far-reaching public health measures to meet this urgent challenge, but those measures must be scientifically rigorous, and based on the expertise of public health professionals."
Andrew Geronimo, director of the intellectual property venture clinic at the Case Western University School of Law, said that the U.S. government is currently in talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies about using deidentified location data from smartphones to better monitor the progress of the outbreak. He was hesitant to endorse such a step.
"These companies may say that all of this data is anonymized," he said, "but studies have shown that it is difficult to fully anonymize data sets that contain so much information about us."
Beyond the technical issues, social attitudes may mount another challenge. Epic events such as 9/11 tend to loosen vigilance toward protecting privacy, according to Klugman and Geronimo. And as more people are sickened and hospitalized in the U.S. with COVID-19, Klugman believes more Americans will be willing to allow themselves to be tracked. "If that happens, there needs to be a time limitation," he said.
However, even if time limits are put in place, Geronimo believes it would lead to an even greater rollback of privacy during the next crisis.
"Once certain privacy barriers have been breached, it can be difficult to roll them back again," he warned. "And the prior incidents could always be used as a precedent – or as proof of concept."