Authorities Eye Using Mobile Phone Tracking COVID-19’s Spread

Privacy advocates advise caution when tracking the movements of patients or those infected with the new coronavirus, as an effort to minimize the pandemic’s effect.

Authorities in the United States and Israel are eyeing ways to use mobile-phone and other location-based data to help control the spread of the new coronavirus COVID-19, raising serious privacy concerns about the practice of using and sharing people’s personal data during the time of a global health crisis.

U.S. officials are in active discussions with technology giants like Facebook and Google as well as public health experts about how potentially to use location data collected from cell phones to track whether people are practicing social distancing or to track the movements of those infected with COVID-19, in order to stem the outbreak, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

The government is mulling this potential compiling of people’s personal and location-specific data with the purpose of mapping the spread of infection and using this knowledge to provide solutions to the problem, according to the report.

By analyzing the movement trends of smartphone owners, officials believe they can track the spread of COVID-19 and possibly limit the damage it has already caused, the report said. They also could use location-based information to see if people are indeed practicing recommended and, in some places, mandated social distancing, which requires people to ensure a certain amount of space between themselves and others when meeting people on the street or in a shop.

Meanwhile in Israel, the government’s Shin Bet security agency is already using surveillance — leveraging technology that was already implemented to track Palestinian militants in the region. The idea is to keep a watchful eye on the movements of COVID-19 patients, a move that’s raised an outcry of privacy in the country, according to a published report.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his plan late Saturday, saying it was to protect people, although he acknowledged the violation of privacy aspect of the move. Israel’s plan is to use mobile-phone tracking technology to recreate the history of movements of a person infected with COVID-19, in an aim to identify people who might have been exposed, Netanyahu said.

People have a right to be concerned by the effect such tactics may have on privacy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, experts said. Both efforts by the United States and Israel raise serious questions about how far the government can go during such a crisis to try to stop its spread when personal rights are at stake, they said.

This topic is especially relevant amid the revocation of personal liberties that have already occurred across the world due to COVID-19—with people in the hardest-hit areas of the United States, Asia and Europe in various states of lockdown. Policies that severely limit or even prohibit their outside movements have been implemented, all with the aim of stopping the spread and protecting at-risk patients from contracting the virus.

Eduardo Ustaran, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells LLP in London, said that data-gathering and data-sharing in the context of the fight against COVID-19 presents a key global test for privacy frameworks around the world.

“Privacy and data protection laws cannot and should not get in the way of a common-sense approach to saving lives,” he acknowledged, in a blog post on the website of software firm OneTrust Data Guidance, saying that these laws should allow for using and sharing data when necessary for this purpose.

“At the same time, the parameters set out in the law cannot be ignored — even at times of crisis,” said Ustaran, who specializes in privacy and data protection. “Disproportionate decisions and measures are often the result of knee-jerk reactions, and when that happens at a global scale, everyone is at risk — no matter how often you wash your hands.”

Indeed, another privacy advocate observed that while saving human lives is an essential goal during this time of crisis, using technology to violate privacy and civil liberties could be far more dangerous in the long run.

“The balance between privacy and pandemic policy is a delicate one,” tweeted Albert Gidari, a privacy lawyer and consulting director of privacy at Stanford University’s Center for Internet and Society. “The problem here is that this is not a law-school exam. Technology can save lives, but if the implementation unreasonably threatens privacy, more lives may be at risk.”

The new coronavirus outbreak and the government’s current response to it is being watched closely by the U.S. citizen-rights watchdog organization the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU, while acknowledging the serious health threat of COVID-19, also said it will work to ensure “the government’s response is ​scientifically justified and no more intrusive on civil liberties than absolutely necessary,” according to a public statement on the crisis.

The agency in the past has been critical of the U.S. government’s use of spying and other surveillance technology on its citizens in domestic investigations, but has not publicly commented yet on any use of technology to track patients or individuals as it pertains to the COVID-19 outbreak.

However, the ACLU said in its statement that it does recognize that people may lose certain individual rights in the case of a pandemic because “after all, when it comes to disease, we are not just individuals but also one big bio-mass.”

However, in such situations—such as the quarantines that have been imposed on infected patients or people who have been in contact with someone who has been infected—it’s key that people still “do not lose their due-process rights,” the ACLU said — something that it said will track closely as the situation unfolds.

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