When we finally recover from all of this, it’s fair to say that no one wishes to relive it. Right now, public health officials are consumed by the common goal of containing the spread of the virus—a big enough challenge without looking to the future. But as the nation’s economy circles the drain, states are beginning to lift shelter-in-place mandates, despite warnings from health officials that the nation’s lack of comprehensive testing could mean further outbreaks. Looking ahead, how can we use data and technology to prevent resurgences, especially as states begin to reopen?
Similar to the effects of the Patriot Act after 9/11, which greatly expanded surveillance capabilities for U.S. law enforcement and government agencies, a worldwide pandemic is the perfect storm to create opposition between the values of public health and individual privacy. In order to reopen economic activity safely, public health officials need the ability to track the spread of the disease, and this requires data—both individual’s location data and test results. As I’m writing this, only 1.6 percent of the country’s population has been tested, which doesn’t begin to show the full picture. Even if states have the resources to adequately test, individual consent will still be needed to attach test results to a real-time location in order to accurately track and mitigate the spread of the virus by preventing possible exposure.
Our data was not all that private before all this, if we are being honest. In regards to how the pandemic is transforming data privacy, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang said, “Our data is getting sold and resold and packaged and repackaged—tens of billions of dollars that’s changing hands, and we aren’t seeing a dollar.” Long before the pandemic, data gathered from social media, mobile devices, and even email addresses have generated profits for people other than to whom they belong. The COVID-19 crisis could prompt increased data collection for the “good of society.”
Our data is getting sold and resold and packaged and repackaged—tens of billions of dollars that’s changing hands, and we aren’t seeing a dollar.Andrew Yang, Former Presidential Candidate
Data aggregation companies like Habidatum compile (both purchased and public) information from various sources like mobile social media posts to determine where people are congregating, for how long, and the general sentiment of the area based on keywords to determine “probability of conflict.” This kind of information is very useful for developers and investors when determining asset locations.
In terms of monetizing location data, Foursquare has surprisingly risen to the top. From its humble beginnings as a social media check-in app to now having a location database “that is often more reliable and detailed than the ones generated by Google and Facebook,” Foursquare was able to obtain top-tier clients like Apple, Twitter, and Microsoft. While Habidatum is GDRP (General Data Protection Regulation, a standard for the European Union) compliant and Foursquare insists “that it uses data responsibly,” these companies are still profiting off of our information. Information that we supply with every post, check-in, and opt-in for passive data collection, which location-trackers like Foursquare use.
Whether we realize it or not, we are often complicit in sharing our data simply by “opting-in” to use technology. But in places like China, individual privacy concerns have been completely disregarded in light of COVID-19. Chinese individuals are required to submit to multiple temperature checks daily in order to resume normal activities like work. The concept of a smart city takes on a whole new meaning in this light. In the future, it’s possible that schools, offices, airports, public transportation, and large venues may use technology to determine admission based upon health markers like body temperature.
On the opposite side of the privacy spectrum, Australia recently launched an app COVIDSafe, which alerts public health officials to possible exposures by using geolocation data from consenting cell phones to monitor what they call “mobile handshakes,” which occur when app users are in close contact for fifteen minutes or more. Data will only be collected and released to officials for mobile handshakes that involve a confirmed COVID-19 user. Data generated from the app will actually be illegal if used by anyone other than the authorized officials, so individual users are not actually alerted or provided any information. The app’s sole purpose is to help the country’s public health officials be able to better trace and mitigate disease transmission, but its effectiveness relies on Australian citizens’ willingness to use it.
A similar app, created through a partnership between Apple and Google, is in the works for the U.S. Unlike the Australian version, this app will alert the actual user to potential exposure, but both the user’s identity and incidence of exposure are kept anonymous. Downloadable in May, this app also requires users to opt-in, so its effectiveness depends upon how many people are willing to use it. If widely accepted, the app has the potential to allow businesses to resume operations and enable people to return to work.
The buildings in which we live and work also play a role in data sharing in terms of access but also because they gather information about us as well. Buildings of the future could implement heat sensing technology to grant or revoke access based on body temperature. Advanced computer vision used in surveillance could also be used as an access indicator for buildings by preventing or allowing entry based on one’s appearance. During times of quarantine, this type of surveillance could mitigate disease transmission by limiting access to pre-approved individuals. Computer vision technology could assist with “no-touch” entry and monitoring building density to ensure social distancing parameters are being met.
There are plenty of good reasons people might be weary of surveillance—people who have access to your information could be dangerous. Some might chalk it up to paranoia, but the state of Utah just suspended their contract with private surveillance company Banjo after finding out that the company’s founder, Damien Patton, had been an active member of the Ku Klux Klan and had been arrested for shooting at a synagogue when he was seventeen. Patton has since taken action to change his life, but a violent white supremecist with unlimited access to a massive surveillance network sounds like the plot for a smart city gone wrong thriller. The issues of data-sharing, privacy, and public safety are complicated and require more consideration.
Altruistic objectives, like preventing the spread of COVID-19, can still cause unintended consequences, like setting unhealthy precedents for data-sharing or information leaks. Modern technology’s data collection capabilities are impressive. Using sensors and software to track the spread of deadly disease and mitigate damage is a technological feat to be celebrated, but at what cost? People may argue that providing location data or individual health information is an invasion of privacy, but it’s also, currently, our strongest line of defense. It might be the safest way to reopen the country. Information is the difference between sick and healthy, perhaps even dead or alive. The saying knowledge is power might be cliche, but when it comes to fighting an infectious disease, it certainly rings true.