Cellphone tracking could help stem the spread of coronavirus. Is privacy the price?

Kelly Servick at Science: “…At its simplest, digital contact tracing might work like this: Phones log their own locations; when the owner of a phone tests positive for COVID-19, a record of their recent movements is shared with health officials; owners of any other phones that recently came close to that phone get notified of their risk of infection and are advised to self-isolate. But designers of a tracking system will have to work out key details: how to determine the proximity among phones and the health status of users, where that information gets stored, who sees it, and in what format.

Digital contact tracing systems are already running in several countries, but details are scarce and privacy concerns abound. Protests greeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rollout this week of a surveillance program that uses the country’s domestic security agency to track the locations of people potentially infected with the virus. South Korea has released detailed information on infected individuals—including their recent movements—viewable through multiple private apps that send alerts to users in their vicinity. “They’re essentially texting people, saying, ‘Hey, there’s been a 60-year-old woman who’s positive for COVID. Click this for more information about her path,’” says Anne Liu, a global health expert at Columbia University. She warns that the South Korean approach risks unmasking and stigmatizing infected people and the businesses they frequent.

But digital tracking is probably “identifying more contacts than you would with traditional methods,” Liu says. A contact-tracing app might not have much impact in a city where a high volume of coronavirus cases and extensive community transmission has already shuttered businesses and forced citizens inside, she adds. But it could be powerful in areas, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, that are at an earlier stage of the outbreak, and where isolating potential cases could avert the need to shut down all schools and businesses. “If you can package this type of information in a way that protects individual privacy as best you can, it can be something positive,” she says.

Navigating privacy laws

In countries with strict data privacy laws, one option for collecting data is to ask telecommunications and other tech companies to share anonymous, aggregated information they’ve already gathered. Laws in the United States and the European Union are very specific about how app and device users must consent to the use of their data—and how much information companies must disclose about how those data will be used, stored, and shared. Working within those constraints, mobile carriers in Germany and Italy have started to share cellphone location data with health officials in an aggregated, anonymized format. Even though individual users aren’t identified, the data could reveal general trends about where and when people are congregating and risk spreading infection.

Google and Facebook are both in discussions with the U.S. government about sharing anonymized location data, The Washington Post reported this week. U.S. companies have to deal with a patchwork of state and federal privacy regulations, says Melissa Krasnow, a privacy and data security partner at VLP Law Group. App and devicemakers could face user lawsuits for sharing data in a way that wasn’t originally specified in their terms of service—unless federal or local officials pass legislation that would free them from liability. “Now you’ve got a global pandemic, so you would think that [you] would be able to use this information for the global good, but you can’t,” Krasnow says. “There’s expectations about privacy.”

Another option is to start fresh with a coronavirus-specific app that asks users to voluntarily share their location and health data. For example, a basic symptom-checking app could do more than just keeping people who don’t need urgent care out of overstretched emergency rooms, says Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University. Health researchers could use also use location data from the app to estimate the size of an outbreak. “That could be done, I think, without risking being evil,” he says.

For Scarpino, the calculus changes if governments want to track the movements of a specific person who has coronavirus relative to the paths of other people, as China and South Korea have apparently done. That kind of tracking “could easily swing towards a privacy violation that isn’t justified by the potential public health benefit,” he says….(More)”.