April 2, 2020

Combatting COVID-19 with data – Orwellian or essential?

While populations around the globe have adjusted to life in lockdown of various degrees, governments are looking to use the one thing most of us don’t leave the house without – our smartphones – in the combat against COVID-19.

Several countries – including Israel, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong – are already using mobile phone data to track those infected with the virus, as well that those who are at risk of contracting it. Some countries are collecting anonymised data to study the movement of people more generally, while others are collecting and sharing detailed information about specific individuals’ movements.

Contact tracing is particularly important when we transition out of lockdown (or move down the Alert Levels in NZ terms).  If anonymity is managed appropriately, big data from bespoke contact tracing apps and/or existing apps (including, dare I say it, social media platforms) could actually play a responsible part in helping to build collective crowd intelligence for a social good, rather than merely maximising profit.

At its simplest, digital contact tracing might work like this: mobile phones record their locations; when the owner of a phone tests positive, a history of their recent movements is shared with health officials; and owners of other phones recently in proximity to that phone get notified of their risk of infection and are advised to self-isolate, thereby minimising further spread.

Privacy Commissioner John Edwards has recently indicated that health authorities have permission to track movements of confirmed cases via data collected by their telcos within the bounds of current law.  It’s not entirely clear how far this extends; for optimal effectiveness, digital contact tracing requires buy-in from (and legal authorisation to track) all members of our communities.

Across the ditch, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has rejected the idea on the basis it doesn't align with national values.

Of course, using mobile phone geolocation data can inhibit one’s right to privacy. Critics validly warn that once tracking systems are established, those with control have little incentive to undo them and ample incentive to advance other agendas besides restricting the spread of disease. And so even with the best intentions, such measures must only be implemented in a manner that fairly balances the rights of individuals with the greater good, and with careful regard to any potential overreach with lasting effects.

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