Smartphones emit data which may prove to be invaluable during this pandemic. Current and previous locations, who an individual has been with, and future travel plans are all contained within our handheld devices. This gives the possibility of finding out more about those who have the virus, and thereby who may be infected in the future.
Despite the world going through a massive pandemic, gaining access to this data is difficult. Issues and laws around data protection can mean that governments may be denied access to this personal information especially as the data could reveal private details.
Not only is this a problem for the United States, but for the world as they try to find any sort of data that could help the fight against coronavirus. Though the search for data could increase worries amongst the general public that their governments are spying on their people.
Success around the world
Arguments to increase data collection are based on the success it’s had on the coronavirus fight in the Far East. Health experts have shared that in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, data gathering has helped the governments guide the flow of coronavirus.
One solution to this problem could be for governments to encourage individuals to voluntarily share their information; showing the positive impact it could have.
Chunhuei Chi, the Director of the Centre for Global Health at a university in Oregon said:
“We are at war and we are fighting for our survival, for our lives, our health, our economy. This kind of technology can help every state to prioritize, given their limited resources, which communities, which areas, need more aggressive tracking and testing.”
Peter Eckersley, an artificial intelligence researcher, added his thoughts to the argument, implying that balance is the key. “There’s no reason to have to throw out our principles like privacy and consent to do this,” he said.
Around the world
In Israel, the government is already using people’s data. This data was collected by the government in order to fight terrorism, however, now the data is being used for health purposes. Authorities have been sending orders via text message to the public, telling them to isolate themselves.
In America, the President has been in discussions with large technology firms, such as Google and Facebook, regarding the possibility of potentially using smartphone’s location data which can be anonymised. This was reported by the Washington Post.
Communications companies in Europe have also been discussing the possibilities of using this kind of data. Austria, Germany and Italy stated they would provide anonymised information on individuals’ locations to government agencies in order to help contain the virus. Additionally, O2, based in the UK said it had been asked by the British government to share “aggregate location data on mass movements”. However, no agreements have been made yet.
Hear from the experts
However, anonymised data may still be used to identify individuals. Privacy experts have said that data which is aggregated and anonymous alleviates some privacy concerns but may be less effective in tracking the coronavirus and its impact.
Jamal Ahmed, CEO of Kazient Privacy Experts gave some advice, saying:
“This pandemic has already cost far too many lives. Governments should use any data available to them to contain the spread of COVID-19.”
He continued by stating the need for data sharing,
“Privacy is a fundamental human right, however in my view, under these unprecedented circumstances, it is necessary to infringe upon those rights for the greater good.”
Experts in public health have discussed examples of how technology helped to slow down the outbreak. In South Korea, quarantined individuals were encouraged to download an app which monitored their location and would notify health services if they left their homes. It could also be used to log symptoms. The app is voluntary, so some have argued that its effect is limited. It’s not just technology that has helped control the virus in the country, its method of intensive testing has slowed the impact of coronavirus.
Learning from the past
The memory of the early-2000s SARS outbreak is still fresh amongst many in Asia. Since the 2003 pandemic, Taiwan has invested, and prepared for a potential virus outbreak, to ensure the devastation of SARS was not witnessed again. Though there have only been around 100 cases of coronavirus in Taiwan, they have in place $33,000 fines for those who break quarantine. Location-sharing is mandatory and should an individual not have access to a GPS-enabled mobile then they are issued one by the government.
Data has been used in Taiwan, a country close to China which saw the first outbreaks of the virus, to track those with suspected infections. Though Taiwan has a population of around 24 million people, their confirmed case rates have so far been low. Authorities have been integrating data from healthcare and immigration records aiming to trace the outbreak and find those who have the virus.
This amount of data collection may feel strange to some, but experts say that it has given individuals comfort.
Chunhuei Chi, the Director of the Centre for Global Health at a university in Oregon gave his thoughts on Taiwan’s reaction, “When the public doesn’t get adequate information, you give room for fake information to spread, and also panic. When you do something like Taiwan did, you feel safe: You don’t have to worry about who’s infected. That’s not the case in the U.S.”
One company which may have extensive data on individuals worldwide is Google. Not only can they see internet history and search queries, but locations from its map service and information from its Android operating system.
Though the company is yet to share its data with governments, it said it was contemplating doing so in light of the outbreak. A spokesperson for Google stated that the organisation was, “Exploring ways that aggregated anonymized location information could help in the fight against covid-19. One example could be helping health authorities determine the impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps.” He sought to curtail consumer worries about sharing intimate details by stating that any agreement “would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement, or contacts.”
More data sources
A possible solution to quickly obtaining more data is to purchase it from smaller companies. Many apps collect the location of their users during use, though this data is more likely to be inaccurate.
Further ideas being discussed in the U.S. around data surveillance include apps where individuals can upload their health information (for example their coronavirus status) and their location. However, critics note that this could promote a false sense of security by encouraging individuals to not follow quarantine restrictions.
With all self-uploaded data however, there remains risks of inaccuracy. Ryan Calo, an associate professor of Law at the University of Washington, said that sharing phone location data with governments could be important for knowing if there are violations of social-distance rules. Though he noted that there are issues with this data, saying, “The immediate and obvious trouble is where you purport to convert that information that’s crowdsourced, that’s imperfect, that can be gamed, into some kind of broader knowledge that people can deploy to avoid getting infected.”
Kazient Privacy Experts offer bespoke Data Protection, Privacy and GDPR compliance solutions in a language you understand to UK and international organisations, and has received positive media coverage across Europe. Kazient’s GDPR consultants are fully certified to be your outsourced Data Protection Officer or EU Representative. Get in touch to find out how we can help your business by visiting our website www.kazient.co.uk or calling us on 0330 022 9009.