How comfortable would you be with privacy-invasive surveillance if it could help curb the spread of the fast-infecting coronavirus?
Several countries are already tracking people’s movements in hopes of fighting the pandemic. In addition to its heavy-handed quarantines, China leaned on its telecom companies to figure out who may have come into contact with the virus and how to contact them. The South Korean government is publishing patients’ whereabouts using records such as phone GPS, credit card transactions, and surveillance video. Now Israel has invoked emergency spy powers to track citizens suspected to have the coronavirus.
The U.S. lags further behind—and is mulling policies with caution. The government recently assembled top tech companies, such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, to consider ways data they collect might be used to rein in infections. Could the information many of these tech companies hoard help predict outbreaks, identify at-risk populations, and manage hospital loads?
The brain trust, which included Apple, IBM, and others, weighed options to bolster public health while balancing privacy concerns. Facebook already uses anonymized and aggregated data for “disease prevention maps,” which it supplies to public health organizations. Google said it did not plan to use its anonymized and aggregated datasets to trace human-to-human transmission of pathogens, claiming the information it has could not be adapted to that purpose.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the government passed legislation granting it broader surveillance powers, ostensibly in the interest of protecting citizens. Over time, support eroded.
This is a crisis too. Even Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, one of Congress’s biggest privacy hawks, gave his conditional blessing to the increased monitoring. He said putting people’s data to use makes sense as long as everyone involved makes sure “to keep this information safe, to delete information once it’s no longer in use, and to ensure it isn’t used against Americans by law enforcement,” as quoted by the Wall Street Journal.
Sometimes, tradeoffs must be made.