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Contact tracing can stop COVID-19 — only if Americans allow government access to personal data

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Most Americans await a vaccine to end the pandemic and get us back to work. But the drama about vaccines and masks has obscured a practical answer to ending the pandemic that has already worked in other parts of the world, and which could end the pandemic across the U.S. in only a month, at minimal cost: contact tracing. Contact tracing means entrusting government representatives or corporations with intimate data about individuals’ locations and creating a potentially sensitive repository of information about citizens. That data can save lives — but it will only come into being if Americans trust the system for managing that data. 

American cities and states have mainly opted to avoid contact tracing and the shortcut out of the pandemic that it offers. The ostensible reason offered is American’s concern about data privacy, which is both legitimate and important. 

Citizens and their representatives have to ask themselves this question: In a time of emergency, how much access should governments have to our data? But caring about privacy and working with data are not mutually exclusive. Other nations’ experience shows that you can fight a pandemic and protect citizens — so long as there’s also a healthy, democratic debate about what data is shared and how.

To understand what democratic debate can do to create a system of data management that citizens can trust consider the case of Taiwan, one of the nations that has done the most both to collect data and make transparent and democratic the debate about how the data will be stored and managed. 

In mid-April, 200,000 people around Taiwan received an SMS alert from the Taiwan Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) informing them that they had been in contact with someone infected with COVID-19. This was an alarming development, for despite the island remaining open, the spread of the virus was under control with fewer than 400 cases and only six deaths. But earlier that month a Taiwanese Naval defense flotilla returned from a “friendship mission” to Southeast Asia and docked in the southern Naval port in Kaohsiung. From there, 744 sailors spread out across the island via trains and busses, staying in hotels and visiting coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. Some 36 of those sailors were found to be infected

Using cellphone data, Taiwan’s CECC mapped the movement of the infected sailors with a timeline of their exact locations. This was cross-referenced against citizens’ cellphone data so that if your phone indicated that you were on a train from Kaohsiung to Taipei with one of those sailors you received an SMS alert from the CECC. A potential outbreak was nipped in the bud. 

Taiwanese citizens were willing to let their government manage location dialogue because they had already had a series of public conversations about personal freedom and the appropriate limits of data use. After 2003, when Taiwan experienced an outbreak of SARS, Taiwanese citizens were invited to join forums, public briefings, and direct conversations between the Taiwanese public and government that promoted a consensus on what defined a medical emergency and how data collected for emergency purposes could and could not be used.

Taiwan enjoyed public conversation that the U.S. sorely needs to follow.  

Creating public debates around such issues allows citizens to articulate principles in a way that can reflect the variety of democratic experiences and personal vulnerabilities around data. Democratic mechanisms such as citizen assemblies enable the public to lay out the terms of data collection, access, and use. The public should also engage in a broad discussion about issues such as what government actions constitute abuse of authority. For example, data must not be used to target political minorities, punish opposition leaders or supporters, feed a political campaign, tilt an election, or gerrymander voting districts to influence future results.

Overall the U.S. has lagged on political initiatives that promote either transparency or governance from the grassroots. A first step would be legislation that empowers the government to access data during times of emergency coupled with protections — such as data anonymization and government transparency — to guard against state over-reach. The drafting of such a bill should necessarily be open to public discussion through hearings and forums.

Without such measures, contact tracing will remain stalled and we will be left fighting an unwinnable war against COVID-19. While any scheme less explicit about the limits of the state’s use of data represents a threat to democracy and personal liberty.

We have the tools to stop the virus in its tracks: what we need is political will created through open and lively debate. Such a debate should put forth the question: what kind of data protection will guard the public against abuse of its data while tracking COVID-19 until its extinction? The standard for public safety has been set by Taiwan, which has remained open throughout the pandemic and is one of the safest places on earth right now.

Jo Guldi is an associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University. She teaches courses on data, text mining, and the history of capitalism. She is author of “Roads to Power: Britain Invents the Infrastructure State” and co-author, with David Armitage, of “The History Manifesto (2014)”.

Macabe Keliher is an assistant professor of Chinese history at Southern Methodist University. He is the author of “The Board of Rites and the Making of Qing China.”

Tags Academic disciplines Contact tracing Digital contact tracing Open government Political philosophy

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