Using location data to fight COVID19 puts civil liberties under greater threat

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When it comes to using location data to surveil the incidence and spread of the novel coronavirus, efficacy is what matters.

Presidents, legislatures, and regulators around the world are trying to learn how to leverage existing and emerging technologies to respond to the global pandemic of a novel coronavirus – but this way be dragons.

Governments, corporations, and billions of people toting Internet-connected smartphones and wearable devices are stitching together a digital panopticon atop the existing platforms for data collection that technology companies have built over the decades.

There is a case to be made for using location data, but if governments do not slow down the rush forward towards digitally tracking people’s location, temperature, and social interactions, we will be living in invisible silicon cages of our own making.

This emerging “Cororonopticon” merges location data with remote biosurveillance, posing novel existential threats to civil liberties. It combines existing government and corporate cameras, traffic cams, dashcams, license plate scanners, drones and closed circuit surveillance with “souveillance” home sensor networks, social media, smart thermometers, doorbell cameras, wearable devices, drones, and ad networks connected to apps and browser cookies.

When Washington Post asked more than 100 technology experts whether the USA should location data, a slim majority said no – including me.

Here’s what I told them:

The United States is already using location data at a county level to track cases of coronavirus. Recent investigations that demonstrate the availability of historical location data for individual Americans gathered smartphones show how far warrantless surveillance of our movements and interactions have already gone. That capability just hasn’t been (publicly) leveraged by civilian public health authorities for this purpose – yet.

Given the clear impact upon privacy and civil liberties, federal use of location data from smartphones to track the movements of healthy and sick people should only go forward if doing so is shown to be effective in limiting the spread elsewhere and public health experts recommend it, and even then only with robust safeguards.

The federal government should not begin using location data from smartphones to track the movements and interactions of the public at scale without clear evidence that doing so would have public health benefits that outweigh the negative impact upon civil liberties and privacy.

And as with every aspect of the response to this public health crisis, public policy should be guided by what doctors and scientists are advising, not what vendors are pitching or the hopes that politicians have for technology to be a magic bullet.

Given this increasingly networked world, the “notice-and-consent” model familiar in the commercial context won’t be remotely sufficient to protect our digital privacy in the age of COVID-19.

Tracking the location of people now will open a Pandora’s box later without oversight, bright line limitations limiting use for public health with audits, and accompanying reforms to limit the sale of location data by telecom companies and use by commercial providers.

That appears to be what state and local authorities are already doing with location data around the USA.

Location and biometric data could help public health authorities to trace the contacts an infected person might have had, test, treat, and help contain coronavirus.

Data also could be used by federal immigration authorities, which creates an active disincentive for at-risk communities to seek to avoid testing and health care staff facilities.

Effective public health response requires public trust. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not shown that it is worthy of it.

Without safeguards in place, like a national data protection law and empowered privacy regulator, the implications of giving the Trump administration more access to surveillance tools during this crisis remain dire.


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