In the changing world of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital surveillance is being examined as a means to stop the spread of the virus. Although the benefits of using smartphone location data and other personal locations to track coronavirus outbreaks and ensure populations remain in quarantine, it can also be used by states to leverage greater control over their citizens.
States and companies may gain even more personal data from individuals: not merely what they like and interact with on social media and online, but health data like their temperatures.
This leads to some troubling possibilities: imagine a world where companies can tell from a user’s smartphone data what their emotional reaction is when viewing a product or post online. Or where states can tell if an individual is nervous going through an airport or border. Or what their emotions are upon viewing an electoral campaign video.
This could be the beginning of the surveillance state worldwide, legitimizing breaches of privacy in the name of public health. And, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has revealed, data can be used to affect mass changes in political and social realities.
Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. The two most important questions we should be asking in the wake of phone surveillance are: does it work? And how much of a breach of privacy will occur?
How can phones be used in the pandemic?
Singapore has led the way with a government tracking app. This app has to be given permission to access Bluetooth, and it then logs every phone you come into contact with. If you then develop the virus, health authorities take this record of phone data to see who you came into contact with – they will then track these people and test them and the phone owners they came into contact with, and so on.
South Korea and Singapore have also posted very detailed information regarding the routes people sick with the virus took, to ensure anyone who came into contact with them can be tested.
“This is called contact tracing and is a mainstay of infectious disease control,” says Fionn Welsh, a blogger at Academized and Simplegrad. “What’s different this time around is merely that cell phone location data is being used.”
China, meanwhile, has taken a rather stronger approach. They have brought the virus under control by using mass surveillance of phones to classify individuals by their health status and to restrict the movement of people outside of their houses.
In Europe, researchers are looking for less invasive methods of data collection, like voluntary apps for phones that can remain within the scope of data privacy laws. It would work like this: phones automatically log their own locations, so when a phone user tests positive for COVID-19, a record of their recent movements is shared with health officials who then track whoever came into contact with the user of that phone.
Social media apps like Facebook and Google are already providing data to health researchers to enable them to track people’s movements. This data can be used by public health organizations to model transmission of the virus, and the positive effects of social distancing.
Another model is databases of who tested positive for the virus in your neighbourhood. This is obviously problematic as it may lead to stigmatisation of people who have tested positive. South Korea has been doing this via a phone app: they send alerts to people who are in the vicinity of an infected individual, and they send the path she has taken.
Is this a breach of privacy?
“In an international emergency like a pandemic, it’s common for former norms to go out the window – the problem is when the world emerges from the pandemic and these surveillance methods remain,” says Elly Norton, lifestyle writer at Boomessays and Letsgoandlearn. “These could be used as a means of social control to restrict people’s movements or isolate and exile individuals.”
One way to mitigate these breaches of privacy is to make these apps voluntary – wherein users have to choose to share their location and health data. This is already being developed by MIT – an app called Private Kit: Safe Paths which stores 28 days of a user’s GPS location data, which can then be shared with health officials once an individual test positive for the virus. Other people will learn nothing about that person, only that they have been in a location near an infected person.
Another app, GeoHealth, works similarly using Google location data. People can choose to ‘donate’ their location history, which then becomes anonymized by the server.
It has become apparent that one of the main challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic is that nearly half of all transmissions occur before an infected person has symptoms. This has allowed the virus to spread for days before health authorities are even aware of the infected individual. For this reason, traditional contact tracing is limited in its success.
At this point, using digital contact tracing in the worst-affected areas of the world might be too late. But it could be incredibly beneficial in areas like Africa, where the outbreak is still in its early stages, and tracing infected individuals can prevent the need to shut down offices and schools and quarantine huge populations.
There is a danger to look at technology as the cure to all ills – tracking, sorting people into groups and surveying the streets of cities to ensure no one breaks quarantine will only get us so far, and the risks of implementing this kind of surveillance need to be considered carefully. A voluntary donation of location data once an individual tests positive seems to be the best solution to track the virus and contain the outbreak – time will tell whether it works.
Originally posted 2020-04-21 19:51:35. Republished by Blog Post Promoter