U.S. Weighs Location Tracking for Coronavirus Response

It’s getting easier to find Waldo
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Francis Scialabba

· 3 min read

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It’s getting really easy to find Waldo.

Across the world, governments are craving more information to assist with contact tracing, a technique used to fight the spread of coronavirus. That’s led some countries to tap a potent source: location data.

In countries with early outbreaks

The Chinese government is using a smartphone app to track people’s movements and health status. Hong Kong is giving travelers connected wristbands to ensure they're remaining in quarantine. South Korea compiled GPS data, credit card swipes, and other information to create a public log of infected patients' movements before they got diagnosed. And Singapore is making patients who break quarantine wear an electronic tag that tracks their movements.

  • This week,Israel authorized the Shin Bet, its internal security agency, to access phone data. Israel’s top court said Shin Bet is not authorized to do so unless the legislature oversees operations.

Suppression strategies—i.e. slowing the virus's spread through widespread social distancing, school closures, and home quarantines—seem to have worked better in countries with more rigorous surveillance systems...though they’ve also conducted more testing.

The latest in the U.S.

It appears Washington may follow suit. It’s actively exploring options with Facebook, Google, and other tech companies to access smartphone location data, the WaPo reported Tuesday. It’s not a sure thing and sources stressed that if plans move forward, the government won’tcompile a database.

Tracking efforts would rely on aggregated, anonymized location data, which human researchers or AI systems could use to extract useful patterns. But de-anonymizing data points is fairly straightforward. If X spends every night (and now every day) at address Y, they are likely someone living at address Y.

It’s not not controversial

Sensing the writing on the wall last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) published a call to protect civil liberties during the pandemic. EFF’s warning: Digital monitoring should be necessary and proportionate; transparent; legal; use data collection that's science-based and bias-free; and implemented with an expiration date.

  • The argument for digital monitoring is undermined by the U.S.’ testing failures. Having location data doesn’t help much if you don’t know who is infected.

Bottom line: There’s precedent for sacrifice in times of crisis, like Lincoln suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War or U.S. security and surveillance policies post- 9/11. Citizens and tech companies could make compromises if they believe more monitoring could be a net good in the coronavirus fight.

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