Strengthening Privacy Protections in COVID-19 Mobile Phone–Enhanced Surveillance Programs

Rand Report: “Dozens of countries, including the United States, have been using mobile phone tools and data sources for COVID-19 surveillance activities, such as tracking infections and community spread, identifying populated areas at risk, and enforcing quarantine orders. These tools can augment traditional epidemiological interventions, such as contact tracing with technology-based data collection (e.g., automated signaling and record-keeping on mobile phone apps). As the response progresses, other beneficial technologies could include tools that authenticate those with low risk of contagion or that build community trust as stay-at-home orders are lifted.

However, the potential benefits that COVID-19 mobile phone–enhanced public health (“mobile”) surveillance program tools could provide are also accompanied by potential for harm. There are significant risks to citizens from the collection of sensitive data, including personal health, location, and contact data. People whose personal information is being collected might worry about who will receive the data, how those recipients might use the data, how the data might be shared with other entities, and what measures will be taken to safeguard the data from theft or abuse.

The risk of privacy violations can also impact government accountability and public trust. The possibility that one’s privacy will be violated by government officials or technology companies might dissuade citizens from getting tested for COVID-19, downloading public health–oriented mobile phone apps, or sharing symptom or location data. More broadly, real or perceived privacy violations might discourage citizens from believing government messaging or complying with government orders regarding COVID-19.

As U.S. public health agencies consider COVID-19-related mobile surveillance programs, they will need to address privacy concerns to encourage broad uptake and protect against privacy harms. Otherwise, COVID-19 mobile surveillance programs likely will be ineffective and the data collected unrepresentative of the situation on the ground….(More)“.