How would this work and should other countries follow suit? Israel's government this week approved the use of people's cellphone location information to help battle the coronavirus epidemic – the strongest such action of any Western country. This has raised serious – and legitimate – concerns about privacy and governmental intrusion in the form of unseen surveillance. Placing such sweeping data about people's movements in the hands of the government is not to be taken lightly. But in an epidemic or pandemic where strong public health measures are required, some rights will inevitably be restricted.
After saving lives, the most urgent -- and hotly debated -- problem facing government policymakers in the age of COVID-19 may be how to strike a balance between privacy and public health. The fast-moving and unprecedented story around surveillance tech highlights a long-delayed push for comprehensive consumer data privacy laws, even as privacy advocates grudgingly agree that governments may need to suspend some civil liberties during the pandemic. It's about a global scramble to stop the spread of COVID-19 and get everyone back to work -- without killing privacy or a lot of people in the process. At a moment when people are giving up rights in exchange for public safety, it's tough to say what ideal privacy protections even look like. So we spoke with privacy advocates about the kind of legislation we need in a global public health emergency and the types of surveillance both Congress and privacy advocates want to avoid. The World Health Organization (WHO) says artificial intelligence and big data are an important part of the pandemic solution. Data from smartphones, mobile apps, fitness trackers, and other sources can be fed into predictive AI models to help public health officials evaluate the risks and potential impact of efforts to contain the virus or build up defenses for the next wave. But the public is rightly suspicious of tech solutionism right now.
Public health experts say the United States can reopen and stay open during the COVID-19 pandemic if it does three things well: testing, isolation of people who are sick with the virus and contact tracing. But there's nothing simple about identifying and notifying everyone who might have come in contact with a sick person. The logistical challenges, not to mention the potential privacy concerns, make a full-fledged national contact tracing program daunting. Think about the last time you got sick. Days before your illness was diagnosed, where did you go, and with whom -- including strangers -- did you interact?
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.
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.