Women take a selfie as they wear face masks in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. Israel has imposed a number of tough restrictions to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Now the government is carrying out cellphone surveillance of people who may have come into contact with the virus. Women take a selfie as they wear face masks in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. Israel has imposed a number of tough restrictions to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
LONDON – Several European nations are evaluating powerful but potentially intrusive tools for fighting the coronavirus pandemic, a move that could put public health at odds with individual privacy. The tools in question are apps that would use real-time phone-location data to track the movements of virus carriers and the people they come in contact with. The aim would be to develop a better sense of where infections are flaring up, how they are spreading and when health authorities need to order quarantines and related measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. Britain, Germany and Italy are among the nations considering the enlistment of individual location data in the fight against the virus. That worries privacy advocates, who fear such ubiquitous surveillance could be abused in the absence of careful oversight, with potentially dire consequences for civil liberties.
As the United States struggles to distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccines, we're looking back at the history of vaccine rollouts in our country, including the logistical roadblocks to shots and communicating with a fearful public. The COVID vaccines have been widely shown to be safe and effective, unlike some historical examples that had significant associated risks. But what can stories of failures from the past teach us about how to fairly administer them? On Tuesday, Feb. 16, at 1 p.m. Eastern, join Future Tense for a conversation with Atul Gawande and Helene Gayle, co-chair of the National Academies framework for vaccine distribution, about the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Three small children, suffering through smallpox, huddled behind two locked tenement doors, until they were snatched away by public health officials conducting vaccination raids backed up by police. Elsewhere, vaccines, produced with no oversight and contaminated with dirt from the stables where they were incubated, delivered tetanus bacilli into the arms of schoolchildren, and employers forced laborers to bare their arms to the vaccinator in order to get their paychecks.
SEOUL – When a man in Seoul tested positive for coronavirus in May, South Korean authorities were able to confirm his wide-ranging movements in and outside the city in minutes, including five bars and clubs he visited on a recent night out. The fast response -- well ahead of many other countries facing outbreaks -- was the result of merging South Korea's already advanced methods of collecting information and tracking the virus into a new data sharing system that patches together cellphone location data and credit card records. The Epidemic Investigation Support System (EISS), introduced in late March, effectively removed technological barriers to sharing that information between authorities, by building on the country's "Smart City" data system. That platform was originally designed to let local authorities share urban planning information, from population to traffic and pollution, by uploading data in Excel spreadsheets and other formats. Now it forms the foundation for a data clearinghouse that has turbocharged South Korea's response to the virus.
The battle against COVID-19 has laid bare the limitations of modern technology in the face of a pandemic. We can't accurately track the disease's toll in real time, nor can we accurately predict where it's headed. We are told that developing a vaccine will take 18 months -- which seems excruciatingly slow -- and that the only truly effective weapon we have for now is widespread social distancing, which, of course, has its own painful economic side effects. We always believed our modern tools would protect us from catastrophe, but they have proven startlingly inadequate against this invisible enemy. In some ways at least, technology has been able to tell us more about how and where the virus is spreading.