Tracking: Can Big Tech monitor an epidemic?
Tech companies are weighing whether to let the government access smartphone location data to combat the coronavirus, said Tony Romm in The Washington Post. Through the geolocation data collected by our phones, epidemiologists could “spot trends, identify areas at risk,” and also track “whether people are keeping safe distances from one another.” Now the White House is leaning on Facebook and Google for “an unprecedented collaboration between Washington and Silicon Valley,” saying the data used would be anonymized and aggregated from large groups. Facebook already has mapping tools it gives to nonprofit researchers during public health emergencies, said Issie Lapowsky in Protocol.com. The tools, called Facebook’s Data for Good, include “a mobility map that shows where aggregated groups of Facebook users are moving” within a 600-meter radius. However, the data is limited and does not include Facebook profile details or specific “information about who is infected.”
Facebook and other tech companies could offer a lot more, said Casey Newton in TheVerge.com, and they should. Obviously, the privacy implications are concerning. Israel’s Supreme Court blocked a plan to use cell phone data collected by the Shin Bet security service to track citizens who’ve tested positive. Troubling as such options might be, if the U.S. continues to lag in its testing capabilities, “we would do well to push harder on developing alternatives” from the tech sector. The data that tech companies gather routinely now may be crucial in determining “whether people are following guidelines for staying away from crowds and large gatherings,” said Will Knight in Wired.com. And it can be especially useful in preventing a second epidemic “if the virus dies down but then spikes again.”
There’s no way we should allow this, said Albert Fox Cahn and John Veiszlemlein in NBCNews.com. Surveillance “might seem like a smart way to fight the pandemic,” but there are dire consequences involved in expanded data collection. Using artificial intelligence to analyze location data “could lead to a form of Covid-19 redlining.” And no one can say for certain that after the crisis has died down, these “emergency surveillance tools won’t be co-opted” for future Orwellian purposes, much as provisions of the Patriot Act have proved inextinguishable two decades after 9/11. It might not be helpful anyway, said Scott Rosenberg in Axios.com. Even a strong GPS signal only “gets you to within 5 yards’ accuracy.” That’s enough to tell if someone has left home but not enough to track whether people are really adhering to recommended social distancing. “Our fascination with the magical power of smartphone data smacks of ‘technological solutionism’—the idea that for every real-world problem, there’s an app-based cure.” ■