Enlisting tech to fight coronavirus sparks surveillance fears

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The portable supercomputers people carry around in their pockets may hold the key to stemming the coronavirus pandemic, some public health experts say.

In places such as South Korea, Singapore and China, governments are relying on phone location data to carry out extremely precise and targeted “contact tracing” for people who test positive for the virus.

Israel’s domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet, tracks people’s cellphone locations, allowing the government to text people who came in contact with a patient who has tested positive. Singapore is taking a similar approach. South Korea is using a mix of location data, digital records and camera footage to track where infected people have been.

In China, a mesh of overlapping systems track people as they move through public transport, taxis, commercial centers, and even specific neighborhoods and buildings, serving to both document where they have been and block potential carriers from moving about and further spreading the disease.

But in the United States, where individual liberty is culturally prized and privacy is enshrined in the Constitution, a tech-based approach faces serious obstacles.

“This is a crisis, and we need to look at everything at our disposal, but we also need to be careful about how we do so,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“We do have privacy laws that constrain government access to data,” he added.

Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy, put it more bluntly.

“If the government were to take on this kind of surveillance, I think it would be struck down for violating the Fourth Amendment,” she said. 

Even abroad, some bristle at the invasiveness of the approach. In South Korea, residents have received text messages detailing the recent whereabouts of people who have tested positive, sometimes to an embarrassing degree, causing an uproar. Israel’s Supreme Court threatened to scrap its system.

Still, some scientists and policymakers say that when it comes to battling a lethal pandemic, technological tracking is a no-brainer, especially when the alternative is economy-killing closures.

“That’s exactly what we need to be doing. Do we want to go into lockdown again?” said Aaron Carroll, a health expert at the Indiana University School of Medicine, who says preventing an endless resurgence of outbreaks will require a combination of widespread testing and contact tracing. 

An article published by a group of Oxford scholars in Science, a leading academic journal, suggested that governments would not be able to bring the pandemic under control without some level of technology.

“We conclude that viral spread is too fast to be contained by manual contact tracing, but could be controlled if this process was faster, more efficient and happened at scale,” the authors wrote, noting that a significant portion of the spread occurs before people show symptoms.

“A contact-tracing App which builds a memory of proximity contacts and immediately notifies contacts of positive cases can achieve epidemic control if used by enough people,” they added.

Using technology to contain the virus has found some support on both the right and the left.

A road map from the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) released Friday called for using tech-based contact tracing.

“As a condition of receiving a COVID-19 test in the future, individuals may be required to download the app, which would include their test result,” the plan offered. Others could download it voluntarily to “to see if there are cases in their neighborhood or near their workplace.”

In its own road map released last week, the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute said technology could be used to enforce social isolation.

When asked about the idea on Monday, President Trump seemed to balk.

“So what happens? A siren goes off if you get too close to somebody? That’s pretty severe,” he said.

But he added, “We’re taking a look.”

While there may be benefits to tracking people during the coronavirus pandemic, there are also potential privacy pitfalls, particularly if the federal government is granted emergency powers allowing for more surveillance. 

Ashkhen Kazaryan, director of civil liberties at public policy group TechFreedom, compared the current situation to the years after the Sept. 11 attacks, when major surveillance laws were put in place to curb acts of terrorism.

“Unlike with 9/11, we are not at war with a country or a certain group of people. We are at war with the virus,” Kazaryan told The Hill. “The first thing we should require is transparency. There is no need to hide what they are doing.”

Sohn warned of “mission creep” if the federal government is given even limited surveillance powers during the coronavirus crisis.

“The fact of the matter is once you start to expand the government’s powers in this area, it’s very, very hard to limit what they surveil you for,” Sohn emphasized. 

Congress is preparing to put a spotlight on the issue next week, when the Senate Commerce Committee plans to hold a paper hearing on the use of big data to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The committee rolled out legislation on consumer privacy last year, but debates involving the impact of coronavirus could put a dent in those efforts. 

On Friday, a group of Democratic senators drilled into Apple, sending a letter questioning the company’s recently announced policy that it intended to collect “some information” to improve Apple’s new coronavirus app and website. 

“Although, the use of technological innovations and collaboration with the private sector is a necessary component to combating COVID-19, Americans should not have to trade their privacy at the expense of public health needs,” Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) wrote. 

“A public health crisis is no excuse for data brokers to whitewash and monetize their intrusive, unethical harvesting of our personal data and location information,” Blumenthal said in a statement to The Hill. “We must balance consumers’ privacy interests with the legitimate needs of public health officials and first responders during the coronavirus pandemic.”

Google also took a first step toward making data more accessible to governments on Friday when the company announced it would begin publishing anonymized GPS data for 131 countries and regions showing how people have moved during the pandemic. 

Beyond privacy concerns, questions linger as to whether the government will be able to cobble together workable, user-friendly technology that deals with a slew of state and local health systems.

“I think that this is going to be the second greatest challenge, after what our health care workers are dealing with on the front lines every day,” said Adam Conner, vice president of tech policy at CAP.

“This would make the challenge of the ObamaCare website look small by comparison,” he said, recalling the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act exchanges in 2013.

Already, Trump has faced backlash for overpromising on a website that would help people find testing location sights near them. Few testing sites have materialized, and the website so far is focused on just a few counties in California.

The ACLU’s Stanley says the combined risk of failure and privacy breach should raise alarms for proponents of the tech-based health surveillance.

“The worst-case scenario is the government creates a mandatory program that involves using the location tracking of every American, utterly fails on a technological level, swamps the system with false positives, creates enormous mistrust and creates rebellion among the population. Then they keep the system online and use it for other purposes,” he said.

“A government that can’t get enough face masks may not be able to make effective use of this data,” he added.

Tags Bob Menendez Coronavirus Cory Booker Donald Trump Kamala Harris Technology

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