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How location data could play a role in managing the coronavirus crisis

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Last week, when the coronavirus marched around the world, a growing number of governments began exploring the use of data from our cell phones to monitor the outbreak. Using location data, Israel sent alerts to citizens believed to have been exposed to the virus, ordering them to be quarantined. In England, authorities analyzed anonymous data from telecommunications provider O2 to determine to what extent the population had implemented social distancing. And in the United States, Google discussed exchanging location data with health authorities for similar purposes.

In the days that followed, we have learned more about how location data has been implemented in the fight against COVID-19. Perhaps the most dramatic example to date is in Taiwan, where authorities have deployed an “electronic fence” around quarantined homes, alerting police if quarantined citizens leave the home or even turn off their phones. Here is Yimou Lee on Reuters:

Jyan said authorities will contact or visit those who trigger an alert in 15 minutes. Officials also call twice a day to make sure people don’t avoid follow-up by leaving their phones at home.

Privacy concerns have limited the use of location data for coronavirus efforts in countries like the United States. But the system has generated few complaints in Taiwan, which only reported 108 cases of the virus, compared to more than 80,900 in neighboring China.

Among fans of the system is Ben Thompson of Stratechery, who notes that by implementing what Americans might typically think of as dystopian surveillance measures, Taiwanese citizens currently enjoy more freedoms than many Americans:

Life here is normal. Children are at school, restaurants are open, supermarkets are well supplied. I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the rather shocking claims of government authority and vigilance that make this possible, all of which I would have denounced a few months ago, feel quite liberating, although they are troubling. We need to talk about this!

The fear, of course, is that by allowing such vigilance during a crisis, it will forever reduce the amount of freedom Americans enjoy during normal times. Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun explored this possibility in the New York Times in an article on how different countries are using location data:

“We could easily end up in a situation where we empower the local, state or federal government to take action in response to this pandemic that fundamentally changes the scope of American civil rights,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of Surveillance Technology. Oversight Project, a non-profit organization in Manhattan.

As an example, he pointed to a law enacted by New York state this month that gives Governor Andrew M. Cuomo unlimited authority to govern by executive order during state crises like pandemics and hurricanes. The law allows you to issue emergency response directives that could override any local regulation.

And yet, at this point, I suspect many Americans would take Cuomo’s emergency response directives instead of the President’s, who (surprisingly) called for isolated Americans to return to work at Easter and continued today to make misleading comparisons between COVID-19 and seasonal flu much less dangerous.
Increasingly, calls for diminishing civil liberties to deal with the crisis come from unexpected places. Maciej Cegłowski, the developer behind the Pinboard bookmarking site and, in his own words, “a privacy activist who has been riding a wide variety of horses on the dangers of permanent and ubiquitous data collection since 2012” is one of the ones that caught my attention.

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Ceglowski is a bitingly funny writer and critical critic of Big Tech’s data collection. (In one of my favorite pieces, he compares long-term storage of user data favored by tech companies with toxic waste.) In a new piece Monday, he called for an Israeli-style alert system that uses mobile location data to enable contact tracking and order those exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine. Ceglowski writes:

Of course, all this would have a huge cost for our privacy. This is usually the point in an essay where he would clarify the old Ben Franklin quote: “Those who would give up the essential freedom to buy some temporary security don’t deserve it.”

But this proposal does not require that we give up any freedom that we no longer sacrificed long ago, on the altar of convenience. The terrifying surveillance infrastructure required by this project exists and remains in good working order in the hands of private industry, where it is unregulated and is currently being used to try to sell skin cream. Why not use it to save lives?

He adds that this system could best be conceived of as a public-private partnership, and argues that any use of our data will be limited to the current emergency. “I still believe that living in a surveillance society is long-term incompatible with freedom,” writes Ceglowski. “But a prerequisite for freedom is physical security. If temporarily recruiting surveillance capitalism as a public health measure offers us a way out of this crisis, then we should take it and take full advantage of it. ”

Meanwhile, surveillance capitalism continues to do its thing. In the Washington Post, Geoffrey Fowler summarizes a variety of existing corporate efforts to quantify our routines of social estrangement. Something called Unacast, for example, has released a “social distancing marker” that gives letter grades to states and counties based on the amount by which citizens have decreased their travel compared to normal levels. This is not, strictly speaking, what social distancing means: you don’t have to travel far to get within 6 feet of someone and infect them, but it is … something. How did they get this data anyway? Fowler writes:

Efforts to track public health during the coronavirus pandemic are a reminder of the many ways that phones reveal our personal lives, both as individuals and as a whole. Unacast’s location data comes from games, shopping, and utility apps that tens of millions of Americans have installed on their phones, information the company typically analyzes for retailers, real estate companies, and marketers. It is part of a dark world of location tracking that consumers often have little idea about.

Honestly, most of these corporate efforts have a sense of understanding. The real technology we need to solve the crisis is that found in expanded testing, personal protective equipment, and ventilators. And any technological solution must be accompanied by strong leadership from the federal government, of the type that has been extremely scarce lately.

Still, I’m increasingly convinced that location data could be part of a solution to get out of the pandemic. I will be interested to see if, in the coming weeks, the tech giants reach an agreement.

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