Although China’s implementation of a national biometric database has been widely discussed in western media, its newest use case – combating COVID-19 – has ignited another wave of debate. This time, however, the conversation is not focused on China alone. In a desperate effort to #flattenthecurve, many countries have employed various forms of tracking technology to identify infected citizens and monitor quarantines. Some examples include:
- In Singapore, the government launched TraceTogether, an app that uses Bluetooth signals between cellphones to see if potential COVID-19 carriers have been in close contact with others.
- In South Korea, the government has compiled credit card transactions, CCTV feeds, and smartphone location data to develop a map to inform individuals if they crossed-paths with a COVID-19 carrier. The government later launched an enhanced tool to track patients in almost real-time.
- In Israel and Hong Kong, the government has used cellphone data to enforce quarantines and monitor the movement of infected individuals.
During this time of unprecedented fear and uncertainty, governments around the world have been scrambling to make up for lost time in the fight against COVID-19. While I understand both the gravity and urgency of this situation, at this juncture, I am against the use of personal data for digital contact tracing for three reasons:
- This data is sensitive. Medical and location data are arguably two of the most sensitive data classes. As noted in a recent ACLU white paper, it can be incredibly difficult to truly anonymize location data as even understanding where someone works, and lives can reveal their identity. In the context of a pandemic, individuals will also be identified as COVID-19 positive, potentially leading to longer-term social stigma. Even governments attempting to anonymize are struggling – one public alert in South Korea included significant personal detail: “43-year-old-man, resident of Nowon district who was at his work in Mapo district attending a sexual harassment class.”
- We don’t know if it works. By now, we know that social distancing and contact tracing are critical to controlling the virus, but the efficacy of using personal location data to further these measures has yet to be proven. According to Google and Apple – who are collaborating on their own digital contact tracing platform – such applications may accidentally flag people in adjacent rooms, and don’t provide insight into how long someone may have been exposed. It is also incredibly difficult to develop trustworthy, automated algorithms that can consider PPE or other protective measures. As outlined in the ACLU white paper reference above, one Israeli woman was issued a quarantine order after waving to her infected boyfriend from outside of his apartment.
- We don’t know when it will stop. Making this matter more concerning, governments teetering on the edge of authoritarian rule may be opportunistically using COVID-19 as a means to institutionalize power. In Hungary, PM Orbán – who has long been accused of scaling back democratic norms – is now able to rule by decree for an indefinite period. In India, PM Modi has urged the press to report only positive news about the government’s fight against COVID-19. Of course, while not all governments have malicious intentions, it is troubling to think about how long such tracking might go on, and what other use cases might emerge. Once these measures are brought in, it may become too easy to argue that they should be kept in place for future threats.
While this is not to suggest that governments shouldn’t do all they can to suppress the spread of the virus, I believe that in times of crisis we must be incredibly careful about the precedent we set. Yes, we should continue to explore how technology can improve public health, but we should ensure that any solution protects the basic rights and privacy of all citizens.