A Closer Look at Location Data: Privacy and Pandemics


Assessment by Stacey Gray: “In light of COVID-19, there is heightened global interest in harnessing location data held by major tech companies to track individuals affected by the virus, better understand the effectiveness of social distancing, or send alerts to individuals who might be affected based on their previous proximity to known cases. Governments around the world are considering whether and how to use mobile location data to help contain the virus: Israel’s government passed emergency regulations to address the crisis using cell phone location data; the European Commission requested that mobile carriers provide anonymized and aggregate mobile location data; and South Korea has created a publicly available map of location data from individuals who have tested positive. 

Public health agencies and epidemiologists have long been interested in analyzing device location data to track diseases. In general, the movement of devices effectively mirrors movement of people (with some exceptions discussed below). However, its use comes with a range of ethical and privacy concerns. 

In order to help policymakers address these concerns, we provide below a brief explainer guide of the basics: (1) what is location data, (2) who holds it, and (3) how is it collected? Finally we discuss some preliminary ethical and privacy considerations for processing location data. Researchers and agencies should consider: how and in what context location data was collected; the fact and reasoning behind location data being classified as legally “sensitive” in most jurisdictions; challenges to effective “anonymization”; representativeness of the location dataset (taking into account potential bias and lack of inclusion of low-income and elderly subpopulations who do not own phones); and the unique importance of purpose limitation, or not re-using location data for other civil or law enforcement purposes after the pandemic is over….(More)”.

Human migration: the big data perspective


Alina Sîrbu et al at the International Journal of Data Science and Analytics: “How can big data help to understand the migration phenomenon? In this paper, we try to answer this question through an analysis of various phases of migration, comparing traditional and novel data sources and models at each phase. We concentrate on three phases of migration, at each phase describing the state of the art and recent developments and ideas. The first phase includes the journey, and we study migration flows and stocks, providing examples where big data can have an impact. The second phase discusses the stay, i.e. migrant integration in the destination country. We explore various data sets and models that can be used to quantify and understand migrant integration, with the final aim of providing the basis for the construction of a novel multi-level integration index. The last phase is related to the effects of migration on the source countries and the return of migrants….(More)”.

A controlled trial for reproducibility


Marc P. Raphael, Paul E. Sheehan & Gary J. Vora at Nature: “In 2016, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) told eight research groups that their proposals had made it through the review gauntlet and would soon get a few million dollars from its Biological Technologies Office (BTO). Along with congratulations, the teams received a reminder that their award came with an unusual requirement — an independent shadow team of scientists tasked with reproducing their results.

Thus began an intense, multi-year controlled trial in reproducibility. Each shadow team consists of three to five researchers, who visit the ‘performer’ team’s laboratory and often host visits themselves. Between 3% and 8% of the programme’s total funds go to this independent validation and verification (IV&V) work. But DARPA has the flexibility and resources for such herculean efforts to assess essential techniques. In one unusual instance, an IV&V laboratory needed a sophisticated US$200,000 microscopy and microfluidic set-up to make an accurate assessment.

These costs are high, but we think they are an essential investment to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money and to advance fundamental research towards beneficial applications. Here, we outline what we’ve learnt from implementing this programme, and how it could be applied more broadly….(More)”.

COVID-19 is creating a democratic deficit – here’s how to reduce it


Article by Matt Ryan: “As parliaments around the country move to scale down operations and defer sittings as part of containing COVID-19 people are beginning to ring the accountability alarm bells….

The good news is that we can learn from those parliaments and politicians around the world who have already been trialling new ways of working that go beyond traditional sittings. Leveraging simple and widely available technologies, they are involving more people with more diverse backgrounds in their processes with less reliance on those people being physically present.

Select Committees in the UK Parliament, for example, have used online “evidence checks” to scrutinise the basis for policy. These one-month exercises use targeted outreach and social media strategies to invite comments from knowledgeable stakeholders and members of the public about the rigour of evidence on which a government department’s policy is based. Evidence for departmental policy is summarised in a two-page document and comments publicly displayed in a web forum that resembles a readers’ comments section in an online news article.

In Taiwan, a participatory governance process pioneered by civic rights activists at the behest of a government minister combines large-scale online participation with smaller in-person gatherings to build a “rough consensus” on legislative proposals related to the digital economy before they are introduced. Known as vTaiwan, the process has led to 26 pieces of national legislation dealing with issues such as Uber, telemedicine and online alcohol sales, and has involved 200,000 people.

The government of Mexico City has raised the stakes even higher, involving more than 400,000 people in a process to draft a new constitution. It included a novel partnership between Change.org and the city mayor that enabled residents to create petition-backed proposals which, once they reached a certain threshold of support, bound the mayor to include them in the draft he submitted to a special constitutional assembly.

Processes like these can also offer relief for politicians and parliamentary officials managing the strain of examining an ever-increasing number of issues of greater complexity with limited personnel and budget. Evidence checks provide access to a wider pool of experts who can bolster existing research capacity. vTaiwan helps to find workable ways forward in industries being rapidly transformed by digital technologies. By “crowdsourcing” the city’s constitution, Mexico City’s mayor retained the trust of residents while undertaking reform at a grand scale….(More)”.

Ask a Scientist


NYU Press Release: “Unreliable tips on how to protect oneself from the novel coronavirus and fake news about the COVID-19 pandemic are spreading as quickly as the virus itself.

The Governance Lab (The GovLab) at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering has collaborated with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the State of New Jersey Office of Innovation to launch a free, interactive tool aimed at cutting through the noise and presenting clear, scientist-led, and evidence-based information and advice to the public.

Available in English and Spanish, “Ask a Scientist,” allows users to find answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about the virus, the severity of the outbreak, best methods of prevention, and steps to take in the event you fall ill. All posted content is obtained from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other rigorously verified sources.

screenshot of website that allows users to type in questions about COVID-19

“Ask a Scientist” features a free, interactive tool allowing users to submit questions to a team of FAS researchers and a crowdsourced network of vetted science experts. In English and Spanish, the site also includes top articles and the latest information, and answers to a wide range of commonly asked questions about the COVID-19 epidemic, the severity of the outbreak, best methods of prevention, and steps to take in the event you fall ill.

If users do not find an answer to their specific questions, they have the option of submitting them to a team of FAS researchers and a crowdsourced network of vetted science experts led by the National Science Policy Network. Users can expect an answer within an hour, although that timeframe is expected to shorten as the network increases in size. Every answer is reviewed to ensure accuracy and timeliness, then added to the knowledge base for the benefit of others….(More)”.

Data Collaboratives in Response to COVID19


Living Repository: “This document is part of a call for action to build a responsible infrastructure for data-driven pandemic response. 

It serves as a living repository for data collaboratives seeking to address the spread of COVID-19 and its secondary effects. 

> You can find ongoing data collaborative projects here

> Requests for data and expertise that might lead to data collaboratives can be found here.

> Data competitions, challenges, and calls for proposals, which can lead to useful tools to combat COVID-19, can be found here.

The repository aims to include projects that show a commitment to privacy protection, data responsibility, and overall user well-being. 

It will be updated regularly as we receive projects and proposals or otherwise become aware of them. 

HELP US MAKE THIS REPOSITORY BETTER:  Individuals are encouraged to edit the repo and/or suggest additions to this document if a project is not currently listed.

See full Living Repository here.

Location Surveillance to Counter COVID-19: Efficacy Is What Matters


Susan Landau at Lawfare: “…Some government officials believe that the location information that phones can provide will be useful in the current crisis. After all, if cellphone location information can be used to track terrorists and discover who robbed a bank, perhaps it can be used to determine whether you rubbed shoulders yesterday with someone who today was diagnosed as having COVID-19, the respiratory disease that the novel coronavirus causes. But such thinking ignores the reality of how phone-tracking technology works.

Let’s look at the details of what we can glean from cellphone location information. Cell towers track which phones are in their locale—but that is a very rough measure, useful perhaps for tracking bank robbers, but not for the six-foot proximity one wants in order to determine who might have been infected by the coronavirus.

Finer precision comes from GPS signals, but these can only work outside. That means the location information supplied by your phone—if your phone and that of another person are both on—can tell you if you both went into the same subway stop around the same time. But it won’t tell you whether you rode the same subway car. And the location information from your phone isn’t fully precise. So not only can’t it reveal if, for example, you were in the same aisle in the supermarket as the ill person, but sometimes it will make errors about whether you made it into the store, as opposed to just sitting on a bench outside. What’s more, many people won’t have the location information available because GPS drains the battery, so they’ll shut it off when they’re not using it. Their phones don’t have the location information—and neither do the providers, at least not at the granularity to determine coronavirus exposure.

GPS is not the only way that cellphones can collect location information. Various other ways exist, including through the WiFi network to which a phone is connected. But while two individuals using the same WiFi network are likely to be close together inside a building, the WiFi data would typically not be able to determine whether they were in that important six-foot proximity range.

Other devices can also get within that range, including Bluetooth beacons. These are used within stores, seeking to determine precisely what people are—and aren’t—buying; they track peoples’ locations indoors within inches. But like WiFi, they’re not ubiquitous, so their ability to track exposure will be limited.

If the apps lead to the government’s dogging people’s whereabouts at work, school, in the supermarket and at church, will people still be willing to download the tracking apps that get them get discounts when they’re passing the beer aisle? China follows this kind of surveillance model, but such a surveillance-state solution is highly unlikely to be acceptable in the United States. Yet anything less is unlikely to pinpoint individuals exposed to the virus.

South Korea took a different route. In precisely tracking coronavirus exposure, the country used additional digital records, including documentation of medical and pharmacy visits, history of credit card transactions, and CCTV videos, to determine where potentially exposed people had been—then followed up with interviews not just of infected people but also of their acquaintances, to determine where they had traveled.

Validating such records is labor intensive. And for the United States, it may not be the best use of resources at this time. There’s an even more critical reason that the Korean solution won’t work for the U.S.: South Korea was able to test exposed people. The U.S. can’t do this. Currently the country has a critical shortage of test kits; patients who are not sufficiently ill as to be hospitalized are not being tested. The shortage of test kits is sufficiently acute that in New York City, the current epicenter of the pandemic, the rule is, “unless you are hospitalized and a diagnosis will impact your care, you will not be tested.” With this in mind, moving to the South Korean model of tracking potentially exposed individuals won’t change the advice from federal and state governments that everyone should engage in social distancing—but employing such tracking would divert government resources and thus be counterproductive.

Currently, phone tracking in the United States is not efficacious. It cannot be unless all people are required to carry such location-tracking devices at all times; have location tracking on; and other forms of information tracking, including much wider use of CCTV cameras, Bluetooth beacons, and the like, are also in use. There are societies like this. But so far, even in the current crisis, no one is seriously contemplating the U.S. heading in that direction….(More)”.

Can location data from smartphones help slow the coronavirus? Facebook is giving academics a chance to try


Rebecca Robbins at Statnews: “It’s emerging as one of the more promising — and potentially controversial — ideas to slow the spread of the coronavirus: collecting smartphone data to track where people have gone and who they’ve crossed paths with.

The White House has discussed the notion, and several companies are reportedly in talks with the Trump administration to share aggregated user data. Researchers in the U.K. are working on one such app, and a team led by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is building another, with an eye toward protecting user privacy. China and South Korea developed their own smartphone surveillance systems to try to clamp down on their own outbreaks, though their approaches likely wouldn’t be palatable in countries with greater expectations of privacy.

Then there’s Facebook, which collects data from its users around the world who opt in to sharing their location when using its smartphone app. Facebook does not share this information with governments. But in recent weeks, the social media giant has been sharing these data — in aggregated and anonymized form — with academic and nonprofit researchers analyzing the spread of the coronavirus.

Among the universities where Covid-19 researchers are harnessing Facebook’s data: the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, University of Pavia in Italy, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The idea is to study where people move and how often they encounter each other, in the hope of better understanding the virus’ spread — and which places are likely to soon see a spike in cases….(More)”.

Why resilience to online disinformation varies between countries


Edda Humprecht at the Democratic Audit: “The massive spread of online disinformation, understood as content intentionally produced to mislead others, has been widely discussed in the context of the UK Brexit referendum and the US general election in 2016. However, in many other countries online disinformation seems to be less prevalent. It seems certain countries are better equipped to face the problems of the digital era, demonstrating a resilience to manipulation attempts. In other words, citizens in these countries are better able to adapt to overcome challenges such as the massive spread of online disinformation and their exposure to it. So, do structural conditions render countries more or less resilient towards online disinformation?

As a first step to answering this question, in new research with Frank Esser and Peter Van Aelst, we identified the structural conditions that are theoretically linked to resilience to online disinformation, which relate to different political, media and economic environments. To test these expectations, we then identified quantifiable indicators for these theoretical conditions, which allowed us to measure their significance for 18 Western democracies. A cluster analysis then yielded three country groups: one group with high resilience to online disinformation (including the Northern European countries) and two country groups with low resilience (including Southern European countries and the US).

Conditions for resilience: political, media and economic environments

In polarised political environments, citizens are confronted with different deviating representations of reality and therefore it becomes increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between false and correct information. Thus, societal polarisation is likely to decrease resilience to online disinformation. Moreover, research has shown that both populism and partisan disinformation share a binary Manichaeanworldview, comprising anti-elitism, mistrust of expert knowledge and a belief in conspiracy theories. As a consequence of these combined influences, citizens can obtain inaccurate perceptions of reality. Thus, in environments with high levels of populist communication, online users are exposed to more disinformation.

Another condition that has been linked to resilience to online disinformation in previous research is trust in news media. Previous research has shown that in environments in which distrust in news media is higher, people are less likely to be exposed to a variety of sources of political information and to critically evaluate those. In this vein,the level of knowledge that people gain is likely to play an important role when confronted with online disinformation. Research has shown that in countries with wide-reaching public service media, citizens’ knowledge about public affairs is higher compared to countries with marginalised public service media. Therefore, it can be assumed that environments with weak public broadcasting services (PBS) are less resilient to online disinformation….

Looking at the economic environment, false social media content is often produced in pursuit of advertising revenue, as was the case with the Macedonian ‘fake news factories’ during the 2016 US presidential election. It is especially appealing for producers to publish this kind of content if the potential readership is large. Thus, large-size advertising markets with a high number of potential users are less resistant to disinformation than smaller-size markets….(More)”.

Disinformation is particularly prevalent on social media and in countries with very many social media users, it is easier for rumour-spreaders to build partisan follower networks. Moreover, it has been found that a media diet mainly consisting of news from social media limits political learning and leads to less knowledge of public affairs compared to other media source. From this, societies with a high rate of social media users are more vulnerable to online disinformation spreading rapidly than other societies…(More)”.

Privacy and Pandemics


Emily Benson at the Bertelsmann Foundation: “In bucolic China, a child has braved cold temperatures for some fresh outdoors air. Overhead, a drone hovers. Its loudspeaker, a haunting combination of human direction in the machine age, chides him for being outdoors. “Hey kid! We’re in unusual times… The coronavirus is very serious… run!!” it barks. “Staying at home is contributing to society.”

The ferocious spread of COVID-19 in 2020 has revealed stark policy differences among governments. The type of actions and degrees of severity with which governments have responded varies widely, but one pressing issue the crisis raises is how COVID-19 will affect civil liberties in the digital age.

The Chinese Approach

Images of riot gear with heat-sensing cameras and temperature gun checks in metro stations have been plastered in the news since the beginning of 2020, when the Chinese government undertook drastic measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. The government quickly set about enacting strict restraints on society that dictated where people went and what they could do.

In China, Alipay, an Alibaba subsidiary and equivalent of Elon Musk’s PayPal, joined forces with Ant Financial to launch Alipay Health Code, a software for smart phones. It indicates individuals’ health in green, yellow, and red, ultimately determining where citizens can and cannot go. The government has since mandated that citizens use this software, despite inaccuracies of temperature-reading technology that has led to the confinement of otherwise healthy individuals. It also remains unclear how this data will be used going forward–whether it will be stored indefinitely or used to augment civilians’ social scores. As the New York Times noted, this Chinese gathering of data would be akin to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) using data from Amazon, Facebook, and Google to track citizens and then share that data with law enforcement–something that no longer seems so far-fetched.

An Evolving EU

The European Union is home to what is arguably the most progressive privacy regime in the world. In May 2018, the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While processing personal data is generally permitted in cases in which individuals have provided explicit consent to the use of their data, several exceptions to these mining prohibitions are proving problematic in the time of COVID-19. For example, GDPR Article 9 provides an exception for public interest, permitting the processing of personal data when it is necessary for reasons of substantial public interest, and on the basis of Union or Member State law which must be proportionate to the aim pursued…(More)”.