Mar 24, 2020

How COVID-19 may further erode our digital privacy

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Some data collection may help health officials, but once we grant access, what happens when the urgency has passed?

Governments are looking to technology to help measure the spread of COVID-19, and increasingly that means surveillance. Israel passed a law last week to gather cell phone location data to identify and track people with the virus. The U.S. government has been in talks with tech companies about similar measures.

Privacy advocates say our next steps are critical. There are good reasons to hand over personal information in a crisis, but the consequences might outlast the moment. 

I spoke with Alexander Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project at the nonprofit organization Demand Progress. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Alexander Howard. (Photo courtesy of Howard)

Alexander Howard: I don’t think that the notice-and-consent model is ideal here. We should think back to 9/11 and the Patriot Act and warrantless surveillance, and the fact that ever since then we’ve been trying to put that genie back in the bottle and create better oversight, better auditing. Right now, if we rush forward with, say, tracking people’s location or tracking people’s temperature, tracking people’s interactions with others, that could very quickly lead us into, I think, a dystopian world.

Molly Wood: What are you watching around the collection of data during this pandemic that has you concerned?

Howard: I think it’s transparency. There may be things happening we don’t know about, and this is where journalism is playing a big role. We should be having a discussion about civil liberties, about privacy, about location data use, about health data, sensor data, all the different kinds of data that could be used to respond to this.

Wood: Do you feel like there’s enough tension? Enough discussion? Or are [we] really on the precipice of giving some of these [tech] companies pretty unprecedented power that we might not be able to take back?

Howard: There’s absolutely not enough discussion, and people are going to look for magic bullets, any kind of thing that can help — as opposed to sober, evidence-based approaches that scientists and public health experts, like Dr. [Anthony] Fauci — are informing the nation about. This is the subtle part. I’m sure you’ve seen this where there’s “smart” everything right now. What happens if these devices are passively collecting information about us, which informs the government, informs public health authorities about changes in temperature? Which could give them information they need. And in the details that people sign away, the data use passes through, the location tracking passes through.

This is where having data protection laws on the books really matters. We don’t have one at the national level, [but] we do have one in California. The question is whether California’s statute will govern the collection and use of sensor data and biometric data from people.

Wood: We are seeing China, Korea and Israel deal with this virus and this question of data in different ways. At what point, though, do you think that some of those strategies might become a model? Israel basically said, “We’re going to take 30 days to collect everyone’s location data from their phones.” It sounds like at least some parts of the U.S. government said, “Good idea.”

Howard: I’m hoping we adapt, improvise, overcome — this is the Marine Corps approach to this — and we look at how open societies have approached this. The question of where and how location data is collected or used is incredibly compelling because it’s so powerful. Where someone moves, who they interacted with, is exactly the thing an epidemiologist would want to have access to. But it should also be something where we’re discussing the trade-offs, and also understanding that there is an incredible amount of power here. If you see how reporting requirements for someone receiving public benefits works — whether it’s food stamps or housing — often, that comes with trade-offs because people who are in charge of auditing compliance keep checking on them.

We might well see it applied to people by the end of this year, whereby you’ll need to authenticate how recently you were tested and [the results] to have access to various social interactions. What we have to make sure of is that that status and that tracking doesn’t stop you from getting essential services, doesn’t stop you from being able to get the care that you need. I think that actually is going to be where the tension is.

“Where someone moves, who they interacted with, is exactly the thing an epidemiologist would want to have access to. But it should also be something where we’re discussing the trade-offs,” Howard said. (Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

The New York Times had a piece Monday on this topic as well, which was a good roundup of the ways that various countries have been using technology to trace and track the progress of the virus. One particularly striking fact: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted out personal details about the second person in the state to test positive for the virus. So, let’s start with common sense and then have a discussion about activating the massive surveillance potential of our digital age in ways that we may not be able to undo. 

Reuters reports that mobile carriers are already sharing location data with health officials in Germany, Italy and Austria, partly with the goal of making sure people are complying with limitations on their movement. Taiwan has a much more aggressive version using phones to track location and notify authorities if people move outside what is basically an electronic fence. Again, it’s important to point out that this data can be valuable. However, another thing Alex Howard told me is that it’s most valuable when used in the context of testing, where it allows authorities to trace the contacts an infected person might have had. Since testing is still not widespread in the U.S., the immediate value of massive location data collection isn’t all that clear.

Also watching

Researchers around the world are rushing to find a vaccine for COVID-19, and now IBM and other big tech companies are loaning them supercomputer power to do it. The new COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium includes IBM, Alphabet’s Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft. The supercomputer time will help researchers do things like predict drug interactions and side effects, simulate drug compounds and hopefully uncover new therapies and treatments much faster. Still, not enough masks, ventilators and other important equipment are in the hospitals right now.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has sent a letter to the White House asking for any stimulus plan to include benefits and protections for gig economy workers — such as those who work for Uber but aren’t exactly employees. He wrote that he’s not asking for a bailout for Uber, but does want a permanent safety net for people who are classified as independent contractors. 

Also, Amazon is reorienting itself to deliver essential supplies and groceries. Some nonessential items that you can’t really buy anywhere else if your area is on lockdown are showing shipping times as long as a month — even for Prime members. Analysts note that it’s a problem for buyers, but also third-party sellers who have been deprioritized but still rely on Amazon sales for most of their business.

The team

Molly Wood Host
Jody Becker Interim Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer

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