We watch news stories every day regarding the infamous virus plaguing the world. The spreading of the Wuhan virus, coronavirus, or Covid-19 – whatever you want to call it – has resulted in governments of the world adopting contact tracing practices. Knowing the movements of infected individuals can be used to warn healthy individuals who have gotten into contact with them. They can then get a test and if it comes out positive, tracing their contacts may reveal further infections. For this purpose, the authorities began using tracking technologies inherent in our mobile devices and developed new apps just for tracking. All counties are now using mobile phone location data to monitor the movement, transmission and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Contact Tracing by Geolocation Tracking
Countries worldwide are still working around the clock to find ways to control the pandemic. A number of them are using digital surveillance as a tool to exercise control. Technologies security agencies use are also adaptable for this purpose. Governments and health authorities are naturally eager to use all the tools they can in order to stop the spreading of the virus. Consequentially, surveillance efforts threaten to change the balance between individual privacy and public safety. That balance is a very fine line.
Coronavirus Location Tracking
We hear news from countries like China, South Korea, Italy and Israel where control efforts by location tracking have been in use. In addition to mobile device location data, South Korean government agencies have been tapping into credit card usage and surveillance footage to track the movements of patients who have or have had the novel coronavirus. These steps have helped them determine transmission chains of the virus.
Internal security agency in Israel started using digital tracking to locate infected individuals to combat the spreading of the virus. The Israeli Prime Minister stressed this should be done in a manner that wouldn’t be abusive or threaten individual privacy.
Italian authorities in Lombardy, the region hit hard by the virus, have used anonymous, aggregate location data – not to overstep the strict EU privacy laws – transmitted by people’s mobile devices. This has given them the opportunity to investigate how citizens adhered to lockdown orders. The results showed that some 60% were not moving excessively. Austria has employed similar analyses to evaluate the effectiveness of lockdown orders.
Endangered Civil Rights
Contact tracing using geolocation tracking to fight the pandemic is bringing in results. However, it can be a double-edged sword if it happens at the expense of privacy. The same type of loss of privacy and personal freedom happened to Americans after 9/11.
Now, almost 20 years later, surveillance systems are far more sophisticated and powerful. Think about e.g. facial recognition and geolocation tracking. These type of technologies could also be used for general surveillance and eventually comprehensive identification and tracking systems. They could also be redeployed to take political agendas to the next level.
Experts in civil liberties bring up the concern that the general public may be powerless against authoritative digital surveillance. Current-day technologies like facial recognition “should be checked by limits to prevent improper applications and abuse,” says Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for The Constitution Project at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) regarding its use by law enforcement. He also shares the concern that misidentifications can jeopardize civil liberties and public safety.
Here is what Albert Fox Cahn, the Executive Director for the Manhattan non-profit organization called the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), said about location tracking: “Even as we battle this unprecedented public health threat, we still have to uphold the Constitution. Warrantless cellphone location tracking has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and this surveillance program poses dire consequences for Americans’ privacy.”
Mr. Cahn has also shared concerns about a law that the state of New York enacted to give the Governor absolute power to enforce rules via executive order in the midst of a state disaster emergency, e.g. a pandemic, hurricane, landslide, and such. In case of listed emergencies, the Governor has the power to suspend existing laws and issue directives that overrule local law.
Virus Tracking By Digital Surveillance
The pandemic’s fast pace has encouraged governments to implement measures such as digital surveillance with no input from the public. There is hardly any coordination internationally to test and suggest how effective or appropriate such measures are, nor much transparency.
Coerced Contact Tracing
In many Chinese cities, the government forced citizens to install software on their mobile devices. We’ve read about the traffic-light color codes to identify a user’s contagion risk level. The program controls who can access public places, such as transit systems and restaurants, and who must be quarantined. However, officials didn’t explain on what the system bases its decisions. As such, Chinese citizens feel they have no recourse to contest it and many have no idea what flags them in the system.
Singapore’s Ministry of Health took a different kind of an approach to contact tracing. They wanted to warn the public about locations that are potential hotspots. Furthermore, they wanted to reach individuals who might have been in close proximity with infected people. To do so, they started posting information about every Covid-19 patient online. Their posts include a coronavirus patient’s connections to others and can be quite detailed. Similar tactics backfired in South Korea as overly intrusive.
To help authorities find people that might’ve faced virus exposure, Singapore came up with the mobile device app “Trace Together.” It detects nearby smartphones by Bluetooth signals. If a mobile user’s virus test comes out positive, health authorities can review data logs to locate people with whom they had contact. The authorities maintain that the app respects privacy as there is no sharing of identities between users.
The South Korean Experiment
At the beginning of 2020, authorities in South Korea started publishing comprehensive location histories about everyone whose Covid-19 test was positive. Their website disclosed specific information on coronavirus patients, including the individuals’ movement habits, their mask usage, which bars, restaurants and other public places they visited, and so on. As a result of such wide disclosure, Internet mobs were able to harvest patient data and went on to name people and harass them.
When the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) then demanded for new digital surveillance guidelines that wouldn’t be so intrusive, South Korean authorities took a step back. They concluded privacy invasions could cause people to refrain from getting a Covid-19 test. Hence, South Korean health officials revisited and revised their guidelines for digital surveillance to preserve patient privacy.
Director Jung Eun-kyeong of South Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention touched nicely on the balance between individual privacy and public safety: “We will balance the value of protecting individual human rights and privacy and the value of upholding public interest in preventing mass infections.”
Contact Tracing in the U.S.
The US also started taking steps in the direction of digital contact tracing. White House officials had meetings with technology companies to discuss how to use location data to benefit public health while preserving individual privacy. The topics of the meetings were public but the contents were classified. Seemingly, the goal was to achieve less intrusive tracking than in some other countries but yet get useful data. Aggregated, anonymous cell phone data can help track the spreading of the virus and identify hotspots. As long as anonymity holds when it comes to warning and identifying individuals who may have crossed paths with someone infected with the virus.
Big companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft etc. already have a wealth of information about us. Technology companies have partnered with the federal government, state governments and hospitals to collect data on virus patients’ age, symptoms, location and so on. When all this started, a few US Senators raised questions as to what the companies were going to do to protect the data. Additionally, they were concerned that the data might be used for advertising and commercial purposes. The latter is not an unwarranted concern at all.
Contact Tracing Apps
Several companies started developing apps and systems that track the virus spread and potentially notify people, if they have crossed paths with someone who was later diagnosed as a carrier. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is leading one such project, Safe Paths. Its design maximizes privacy while it also maximizes contact tracing. It has applications both for smartphones (Private Kit) and web (Safe Places).
Verily is a research organization of Alphabet Inc, Google’s parent company. Verily’s project Baseline Covid-19 is a testing tool available in select states and expanding. It’s an effort to make screening and testing readily available while also facilitating testing effort targeting. Project Baseline has partnered with federal, state and local health authorities and several health care partners.
Apple Maps now includes a mobility data trends tool, which provides aggregate data about how people move. Apple’s Covid-19 Screening Tool, developed in cooperation with The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is both a screening and resource tool. Partnering with Google, Apple initiated a project to build a comprehensive platform using Bluetooth wireless signals. Its aim is to aid health and government authorities to contain the virus spread worldwide. Like the Bluetooth-based app developed in Singapore, it is not based on location tracking. Apple and Google maintain that privacy and security of users are pivotal to this project.
There are various efforts in process to work for the public good. Person A may use one application, person B another, person C yet another, and D none, because they don’t know which one would be the best one to use. To each their effort, but it’s unlikely there will be a national database for the public good. Now we have divided aggregate data gathering.
Personal Health Data Privacy Concerns
Enhanced health data and surveillance disclosures have weakened the public’s capacity to privatize the status of their health. Again, this touches the balance between personal privacy and public good.
Mila Romanoff is a governance and data lead working at the United Nations Global Pulse. The program studies data for the sake of improving responses to emergencies and epidemics. Romanoff’s view is that when it comes to pandemics and similar emergencies, we need to consider if priorities like saving lives should overstep privacy rules. In her opinion, public authorities and companies should have a framework within which to cooperate for the common good, but they shouldn’t collect and use more data than necessary. The question remains, as she puts it, “How much data is enough?”
There was a case in Australia where the Health Minister of Australia publicly accused a doctor for treating his patients while exhibiting virus symptoms. Upon returning from a trip to the US, this health care provider thought he had a cold. Later, his Covid-19 test came in positive. He claimed he had followed official guidelines, and responded to the issue on social media. In his post, he claimed that the Health Minister’s comments were inaccurate and unfair, and she did this for political reasons.
So, someone can suddenly broadcast your health status publicly. Privacy gone, even if you followed official guidance. In cases like this, the question is, if official guidance is clear and explicit enough to leave no room for guessing.
US Health Privacy Rules
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Privacy Notices we all have signed at our doctors’ offices momentarily lost some of their bearing. The Department of Health and Human Services took certain measures to enable health care facilities to share information with public health officials. This covers disclosures to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and similar public health authorities or agencies at the state level.
In time of a crises, existing information is shared for the public good. However, while the crisis may justify momentary relaxing of health privacy rules, what’s to come in the aftermath? Things may never go back to what we knew to be normal. The Covid-19 pandemic should eventually run its course like all coronaviruses have done. But, and this is a big but, the next virus always seems to be more potent than the previous one. The health care system needs to stay vigilant. New viruses may emerge at the price of crumbling privacy.
End Note on Privacy
Going back to global, there are several coronavirus contact tracing and tracking apps and more are emerging. MIT started a project to collect information about these apps, their Covid Tracing Tracker. What prompted this was that people in different countries were having very different experiences. Levels of surveillance varied as did preservation of privacy and transparency of the methods. In some countries, privacy has been compromised more than in others. There are no global standards or contact tracing practices for a pandemic.
Digital surveillance might allow governments to implement measures to contain the spread of a virus. Measures such as social distancing and imposing social control can be effective in the midst of a pandemic. Yet doing so also raises questions as to when surveillance might overstep moral boundaries. Contact tracing, as helpful as it may be for virus tracking, can quickly become a privacy concern. Furthermore, can we be sure it’s only temporary and in place only for the duration of a pandemic? It could end up leaving the means in place for unwanted prying down the road. There remains the tricky balance between public good and personal privacy. Some countries have crossed the line while the US tries to keep its balance on the tightrope.
Why would a private investigator share an interest in all this? As a member of the public for safety and as an investigator. Private investigator ethics bind us to respect not only the governing laws but also the rights and privacy of others. We’re big on privacy and confidentiality. If we didn’t abide by ethics and integrity, all our findings would be meaningless. PeopleSearchLive is open for business and ready to assist you.