Sue Halpern at the New Yorker: “…Location data are the bread and butter of “ad tech.” They let marketers know you recently shopped for running shoes, are trying to lose weight, and have an abiding affection for kettle corn. Apps on cell phones emit a constant trail of longitude and latitude readings, making it possible to follow consumers through time and space. Location data are often triangulated with other, seemingly innocuous slivers of personal information—so many, in fact, that a number of data brokers claim to have around five thousand data points on almost every American. It’s a lucrative business—by at least one estimate, the data-brokerage industry is worth two hundred billion dollars. Though the data are often anonymized, a number of studies have shown that they can be easily unmasked to reveal identities—names, addresses, phone numbers, and any number of intimacies.
As Buckee knew, public-health surveillance, which serves the community at large, has always bumped up against privacy, which protects the individual. But, in the past, public-health surveillance was typically conducted by contract tracing, with health-care workers privately interviewing individuals to determine their health status and trace their movements. It was labor-intensive, painstaking, memory-dependent work, and, because of that, it was inherently limited in scope and often incomplete or inefficient. (At the start of the pandemic, there were only twenty-two hundred contact tracers in the country.)
Digital technologies, which work at scale, instantly provide detailed information culled from security cameras, license-plate readers, biometric scans, drones, G.P.S. devices, cell-phone towers, Internet searches, and commercial transactions. They can be useful for public-health surveillance in the same way that they facilitate all kinds of spying by governments, businesses, and malign actors. South Korea, which reported its first covid-19 case a month after the United States, has achieved dramatically lower rates of infection and mortality by tracking citizens with the virus via their phones, car G.P.S. systems, credit-card transactions, and public cameras, in addition to a robust disease-testing program. Israel enlisted Shin Bet, its secret police, to repurpose its terrorist-tracking protocols. China programmed government-installed cameras to point at infected people’s doorways to monitor their movements….(More)”.