Can Contact Tracing, Coronavirus, and Privacy exist in the same sentence?

May 01, 2020 3 min read

Can Contact Tracing, Coronavirus, and Privacy exist in the same sentence?

What do Harvard, a Former Marine, Location Data, and Privacy have in common? The answer is contact tracing, privacy rights, and Covid-19.

As Covid-19, Coronavirus, broke out across the world, Caroline Buckee of Harvard's School of Public Health saw a need for a flow of information centered around the disease. At the same time, a former Marine and C.I.A. officer, Ian Allen, cold-called the school and offered his services. Allen's company started working with the school to flesh out the COVID-19 Mobility Data Network. This is a network of epidemiologists around the world that are tracking the effectiveness of Social-Distancing.

When Allen called, they asked him and his company, Camber Systems, to help use "commercially harvested location data to improve their operations without violating privacy laws." In this instance, Caroline asked Camber Systems to assist in aggregating the location data from the program and anonymizing it to help the privacy rights of the citizens.

This location data, which is also coming from Facebook, would help policymakers evaluate stay-at-home orders and where they could potentially be lifted. This data is constantly emitted from your smartphone applications and provides a constant trail of longitude and latitude readings to follow users. With some data brokers claiming to have up to Five Thousand Data Points on every American, which although anonymized, has been shown to easily be backtracked.

The Public Health sector, in this case, is faced with potentially pushing back on privacy issues in order to protect the health of thousands if not millions of people. While the United States has slowed down in publicly launching a contact tracing campaign, other countries such as South Korea, Isreal, China, and Australia, have already launched their versions.

However, it is reported that the White House has already summoned tech executives to the White House to discuss sharing data with the government and that a company called Palantir is potentially creating a database to house this data. 

As we have mentioned previously, certain privacy rights infringements that start now are unlikely to go away when this is over. Adam Schwartz of the digital-rights group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, points out that nearly two decades after 9/11 there are still sweeping investigative powers that were given to the intelligence community in place. Senator Maria Cantwell also went on record to say, "Rights and data surrendered temporarily during an emergency can become very difficult to get back."

This virus and what goes into place is toeing a very thin line that could lead to a very different world in the future.

Caroline is very conscious of the privacy element of this database and made it a point to publish the strict privacy policies of the group and has plans to publish a paper detailing privacy-preserving best practices for the pandemic. At present, there is a public, county by county, graph of location data that is collected during this time.

As this continues it will be interesting to see if our privacy rights are infringed on in the United States and if so to examine what will be the future of our lives and the connection with the digital world.

To make sure you aren't a number in this graph, store your phone in a Faraday Sleeve when you leave your house. Gives you access if you really need it and privacy when you don't.

Brandon L
Brandon L

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