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)”.

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)”.

The US lacks health information technologies to stop COVID-19 epidemic

Niam Yaraghi at Brookings: “The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the crucial importance of health information technology and data interoperability. The pandemic has shattered our common beliefs about the type and scope of health information exchange. It has shown us that the definition of health data should no longer be limited to medical data of patients and instead should encompass a much wider variety of data types from individuals’ online and offline activity. Moreover, the pandemic has proven that healthcare is not local. In an interconnected world, with more individuals traveling long distances than ever before, it is naïve to look at regions in isolation from each other and try to manage public health independently. To efficiently manage a pandemic like this, the scope of health information exchange efforts should not be limited to small geographical regions and instead should be done at least nationally, if not internationally.


A wide variety of factors affect one’s overall well-being, a very small fraction of which could be quantified via medical records. We tend to ignore this fact, and try to explain and predict a patient’s condition only based on medical data. Previously, we did not have the technology and knowledge to collect huge amounts of non-medical data and analyze it for healthcare purposes. Now, privacy concerns and outdated regulations have exacerbated the situation and has led to a fragmented data ecosystem. Interoperability, even among healthcare providers, remains a major challenge where exchange and analysis of non-medical data for healthcare purposes almost never happens….(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)”.

Handwashing Can Stop a Virus—So Why Don’t We Do It?

Michael Hallsworth at Behavioral Scientist: “Why don’t we wash our hands as much as we should?

Behavioral science can help identify some of the key barriers. It may also suggest what might make a difference for COVID-19 in the absence of a vaccine, recognizing that there is much we still do not know about this virus.

The first barrier may be a lack of awareness about the effectiveness of soap, water, and scrubbing. People may simply not realize how well specific handwashing actions can prevent the spread of infectious disease. This is why many public health agencies run educational campaigns, which may have varying effects based on how far they take evidence about behavior into account.

For example, last weekend the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), the organization for which I work, ran a set of online trials with 3,500 U.K. adults to test the impact of various posters on people’s intended handwashing behavior. We found that posters seemed to have stronger effects on people who were already washing their hands more frequently. In other words, the more compliant people got more compliant. Obviously, this is a real problem for infection control.

One specific issue with COVID-19 may be that people’s attention is being drawn to something else instead: face masks. In many countries, face masks in public are uncommon. Therefore, people in these places are more likely to notice when others are wearing masks, since doing so is visible and novel—unlike washing of hands! This may create the perception that wearing a face mask is the priority for preventing infection.

There are benefits from face masks, but we still lack evidence about how they are used or whether they work if worn by people who are not yet infected. At least one study suggests that on their own they may be less effective than handwashing at preventing transmission. And given that there’s a limited supply, face masks need to be reserved for the people and situations where they can do the most good.

Perhaps the main concern is that people may have a risk thermostat, whereby taking protective measures in one area means that they feel greater license to take risks in another. Obtaining a face mask may make people feel more protected and could mean they make less of an effort to wash their hands adequately.

Awareness is unlikely to be enough on its own. We also need to consider availability. In some instances, there are practical barriers to handwashing—water, soap, and drying materials may not be available. People may be aware of what they should do but be unable to follow through. One obvious solution is to increase the provision of alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispensers at locations where handwashing is infeasible. Doing this has been shown to improve hand hygiene on its own.

However, behavioral science shows that not all “availability” is equal: even small increases in required effort may result in a hand sanitizer going unused. Therefore, those providing hand sanitizer should also consider whether they’ve made usage as convenient as possible. How can dispensers be located so people do not have to make detours to use them? How can the dispensers be made more prominent—like the use of color? Where do people normally have to pause, thus making them more open to usage—like waiting for an elevator?…(More)”.

COVID-19 response and data protection law in the EU and US

Article by Cathy Cosgrove: “Managing the COVID-19 outbreak and stopping its spread is now a global challenge. In addition to the significant health and medical responses underway around the world, governments and public health officials are focused on how to monitor, understand and prevent the spread of the virus. Data protection and privacy laws, including the EU General Data Protection Regulation and various U.S. laws, are informing these responses.

One major response to limiting the spread of infection is contact tracing, which is the practice of identifying and monitoring anyone who may have come into contact with an infected person. Employers and educational institutions are also imposing travel restrictions, instituting self-quarantine policies, limiting visitors, and considering whether to require medical examinations. These responses necessarily involve obtaining and potentially sharing personal information, including data about an individual’s health, travel, personal contacts, and employment. For example, in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked airlines for the name, date of birth, address, phone number and email address for passengers on certain flights. 

As IAPP Editorial Director Jedidiah Bracy, CIPP, explored in his piece on balancing personal privacy with public interest last week, this collection and processing of personal data is creating substantial discussion about what data protection limitations may be required or appropriate. Even China — which is using AI and big data to manage the outbreak — has issued guidance recognizing the need to limit the collection of data and its use during this public health crisis….(More)”.

Milwaukee’s Amani Neighborhood Uses Data to Target Traffic Safety and Build Trust

Article by Kassie Scott: “People in Milwaukee’s Amani neighborhood are using data to identify safety issues and build relationships with the police. It’s a story of community-engaged research at its best.

In 2017, the Milwaukee Police Department received a grant under the federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program, now called the Community Based Crime Reduction Program, whose purpose is to bridge the gap between practitioners and researchers and advance the use of data in making communities safer. Because of its close ties in the Amani neighborhood, the Dominican Center was selected to lead this initiative, known as the Amani Safety Initiative, and they partnered with local churches, the district attorney’s office, LISC-Milwaukee, and others. To support the effort with data and coaching, the police department contracted with Data You Can Use.

Together with Data You Can Use, the Amani Safety Initiative team first implemented a survey to gauge perceptions of public safety and police legitimacy. Neighborhood ambassadors were trained (and paid) to conduct the survey themselves, going door to door to gather the information from nearly 300 of their neighbors. The ambassadors shared these results with their neighborhood during what they called “data chats.” They also printed summary survey results on door hangers, which they distributed throughout the neighborhood.

Neighbors and community organizations were surprised by the survey results. Though violent crime and mistrust in the police were commonly thought to be the biggest issues, the data showed that residents were most concerned about traffic safety. Ultimately, residents decided to post slow-down signs in intersections.

This project stands out for letting the people in the neighborhood lead the way. Neighbors collected data, shared results, and took action. The partnership between neighbors, police, and local organizations shows how people can drive decision-making for their neighborhood.

The larger story is one of social cohesion and mutual trust. Through participating in the initiative and learning more about their neighborhood, Amani neighbors built stronger relationships with the police. The police began coming to neighborhood community meetings, which helped them build relationships with people in the community and understand the challenges they face….(More).

Cividend: A Democratic Urban Planning Mechanism

Jordan Ostapchuk at RadicalXChange: “Urban planning as a professional discipline is implicitly flawed towards its approach to the design of cities. The term “urban planning” is a category error—it is a mistake to view urban environments as something that can be planned.

This stems from our modern desire to make messy systems ‘legible’ through maps, plans, strategies, and grids. It temporarily suppresses the underlying messiness without ever solving it.

The dominant urban planning philosophy of today assumes two contradictory stances.

On one hand, it assumes people know what is best for their life and can faithfully express it via the virtues of the free market. “If people want single family homes with yards, far from the activity of the city centre, then by rights the market has provided!” (Ignoring the five-decade legacy of race-driven zoning policies, loss-making municipal infrastructure subsidies, and hidden costs to health and wellbeing.)

On the other hand, contemporary urban planning assumes that people have no idea what is best for their life and must be saved from their follies by the maternal hand of strict zoning policies, design guidelines, and municipal bylaws. “If we do not intervene, neighbourhoods will devolve into chaos; trust the experts to masterplan your streets and buildings!” (Ignoring the irony of assuming a central bureaucrat can decide what is best for a neighbourhood that they do not live in, work in, or worship in. And the repeated failures of historically master-planned cities and the prevalence of bylaw exemptions.)

There is a better way to think about cities, how they evolve and our role in the process.

It helps to start with two fundamental truths:

  1. Incredibly complex systems arise from a set of very simple rules
  2. We cannot predict the future, but we can invent it.

By thinking about the city differently, we can reframe “the kind of problem a city is” as Jane Jacobs said, one that is better suited to our 21st century challenges and opportunities.

We need to redefine our thinking about cities as collections of interactions, rather than just physical spaces. We should think about cities as market-based, and socially-driven systems.

Michael Batty defines cities as “…aggregates of multiple decision-making processes that generate designs and decisions pertaining to the way we organize our social and economic activities in space and time,” and this is the way they will be approached here. To invent future cities, we must create a system of “radically innovative political economies and social technologies that are truer to the richness of our diversely shared lives” per RadicalxChange’s mission…(More)”.

The human rights impacts of migration control technologies

Petra Molnar at EDRI: “At the start of this new decade, over 70 million people have been forced to move due to conflict, instability, environmental factors, and economic reasons. As a response to the increased migration into the European Union, many states are looking into various technological experiments to strengthen border enforcement and manage migration. These experiments range from Big Data predictions about population movements in the Mediterranean to automated decision-making in immigration applications and Artificial Intelligence (AI) lie detectors at European borders. However, often these technological experiments do not consider the profound human rights ramifications and real impacts on human lives

A human laboratory of high risk experiments

Technologies of migration management operate in a global context. They reinforce institutions, cultures, policies and laws, and exacerbate the gap between the public and the private sector, where the power to design and deploy innovation comes at the expense of oversight and accountability. Technologies have the power to shape democracy and influence elections, through which they can reinforce the politics of exclusion. The development of technology also reinforces power asymmetries between countries and influence our thinking around which countries can push for innovation, while other spaces like conflict zones and refugee camps become sites of experimentation. The development of technology is not inherently democratic and issues of informed consent and right of refusal are particularly important to think about in humanitarian and forced migration contexts. For example, under the justification of efficiency, refugees in Jordan have their irises scanned in order to receive their weekly rations. Some refugees in the Azraq camp have reported feeling like they did not have the option to refuse to have their irises scanned, because if they did not participate, they would not get food. This is not free and informed consent….(More)”.

How to use evidence in policymaking

Inês Prates at apolitical: “…Evidence should feed into policymaking; there is no doubt about that. However, the truth is that using evidence in policy is often a very complex process and the stumbling blocks along the way are numerous.

The world has never had a larger wealth of data and information, and that is a great opportunity to open up public debate and democratise access to knowledge. At the same time, however, we are currently living in a “post-truth” era, where personal beliefs can trump scientific knowledge.

Technology and digital platforms have given room for populists to question well-established facts and evidence, and dangerously spread misinformation, while accusing scientists and policymakers of elitism for their own political gain.

Another challenge is that political interests can strategically manipulate or select (“cherry-pick”) evidence that justifies prearranged positions. A stark example of this is the evidence “cherry-picking” done by climate change sceptics who choose restricted time periods (for example of 8 to 12 years) that may not show a global temperature increase.

In addition, to unlock the benefits of evidence informed policy, we need to bridge the “policy-research gap”. Policymakers are not always aware of the latest evidence on an issue. Very often, critical decisions are made under a lot of pressure and the very nature of democracy makes policy complex and messy, making it hard to systematically integrate evidence into the process.

At the same time, researchers may be oblivious to what the most pressing policy challenges are, or how to communicate actionable insights to a non-expert audience. This constructive guide provides tips on how scientists can handle the most challenging aspects of engaging with policymakers.

Institutions like the European Commission’s in-house science service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) sit precisely at the intersection between science and policy. Researchers from the JRC work together with policymakers on several key policy challenges. A nice example is their work on the scarcity of critical raw materials needed for the EU’s energy transition, using a storytelling tool to raise the awareness of non-experts on an extremely complex issue.

Lastly, we cannot forget about the importance of the buy-in from the public. Although policymakers can willingly ignore or manipulate evidence, they have very little incentives to ignore the will of a critical mass. Let us go back to the climate movement; it is hard to dismiss the influence of the youth-led worldwide protests on world leaders and their climate policy efforts.

Using evidence in policymaking is key to solving the world’s most pressing climate and environmental challenges. To do so effectively, we need to connect and establish trust between government, researchers and the public…(More)”.