If your phone pinged and told you that you passed someone on the sidewalk three days ago who is now in an ICU with the novel coronavirus, how would you feel about that?
It’s not good news, obviously, but how would you feel about the fact that the information existed to be passed on to you?
“I think there would probably be a range of reactions in the population. Some people would say, ‘Yes, yes, please tell me,’ and some people would say, ‘How dare you kind of follow me around like that?'” says University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman.
Over the past few years, we’ve learned the hard way how much privacy we’ve traded for the convenience that mobile devices give us. The convenience was obvious upfront, while the loss of privacy usually was something we figured out later on.
Location data helps you make your way around traffic jams, for example, but also provides a detailed record of your personal movements.
The fitness app Strava outed the locations of U.S. and Russian bases in obscure parts of places like Djibouti, Syria and Niger. In an extreme example of how total our loss of privacy can be, the sex toy maker We-Vibe settled a lawsuit in 2017 after it was discovered that its smartphone-connected devices were sending information back to the company about how it was used, which included the owner’s e-mail address.
It hasn’t escaped the notice of governments around the world that devices that track the location of more or less everybody in the society are more than a little useful if you’re trying to deal with an epidemic in part by limiting people’s movements.
Last week, Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, started using cellphone location data to track the movements of people who tested positive for COVID-19 and to identify people who had been in contact with them and should be quarantined.
Singapore publishes a surprising level of information about its citizens with the new coronavirus.
Case 219, for example, “had gone to work at Sengkang Fire Station (50 Buangkok Drive) as a Singapore Civil Defence Force officer, and visited Meiban Investments Pte Ltd (26 Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park 2) and Furama Riverfront (405 Havelock Road). He stays at Bishan Street 22.” For good measure, we learn that Case 219 is “a family member of Case 236, and is linked to Cases 142 and 211.”
Taiwan has a system that alerts police if COVID-19 patients (or, rather, their phones) leave their homes or turn their phones off.
India gives coronavirus patients indelible hand stamps with the date their quarantine is supposed to end, and tracks the movement of their phones.
On Wednesday, New Zealanders got a national alert confining the whole population to their homes (or, rather, “where you stay tonight”).
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada wasn’t preparing to adopt similar measures — yet.
“I think we recognize that in an emergency situation we need to take certain steps that wouldn’t be taken in a non-emergency situation, but as far as I know that is not a situation we are looking at right now,” he said in answer to a question about phone-based surveillance.
Earlier this week, Toronto Mayor John Tory said local public health officials were, in fact, tracking phones already, a claim he retracted Tuesday, saying he “made it sound like it was happening, not knowing it wasn’t happening.”
Surveillance could take a number of different forms, some more intrusive than others, Fisman says.
“Where it gets uncomfortable is when people start talking about — and this is stuff that they’re talking about in Taiwan and Israel — where you’re using phones basically as ankle bracelets that you’d put on someone who is on house arrest,” he says. “You’re following that individual’s movement — say Bob’s supposed to be on quarantine, but Bob just went down the block to get some milk. Let’s go talk to Bob.
“I think most of us feel fairly uncomfortable with that level of granularity, which in a sense is absurd, because we’re giving this data to Apple and Google and Strava and whoever else all the time.”
On the other hand, more anonymized data that just showed areas were people were gathering might be an acceptable tradeoff.
“You can get a sense of how much person-to-person contact there is in a population just based on these phones being in proximity to each other,” he says.
Anonymized U.S. phone data, for example, shows that people in states that have a visible problem with the new coronavirus are more likely to have limited their movements, for example.
Fisman points to a pattern in history in which societies are talked into accepting a loss of privacy or freedom to deal with a crisis, only to see their liberties not return when the crisis ends.
“People are scared, so they give up their rights, and those rights don’t come back. It’s a pretty old trick.”
Provinces could probably use emergency laws to order telecommunications companies to hand over user data, Carleton University lecturer Leah West said on a recent podcast. But that would be subject to challenge in the courts.
“You could potentially say that they could create some sort of massive order that would require telcos to hand over their data. But I think that that would be really susceptible to a challenge as not being proportionate or necessary to manage this crisis.”
But at the federal level, Canada’s federal Emergencies Act, passed in 1988, doesn’t provide for the collection of personal data in this kind of emergency.
“In the context of a public welfare emergency, (there is an) enumerated list of things that the government can make orders and regulations about. Surveillance is not one of them. That would be different if we’re talking about a different type of emergency,” she said.
“(Amending the law) would, I think, be the only way that this kind of tracking, using that data or personal information from either Facebook, Google or wherever could ever be implemented in Canada.”
There are sometimes said to be no atheists in a foxhole. Our times may test whether there are privacy advocates in a lethal epidemic.
“Emergency law can actually be quite dangerous,” cautioned Carleton professor Stephanie Carvin on the same podcast.
“There are many states on the face of this planet who have been in persistent states of emergency for some time. Usually political emergencies, and it could be very corrosive of civil liberties and rights.
“And of course, there isn’t much appetite right now, perhaps, in the broader public to talk about civil liberties and rights.”
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