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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Tracked and healthy?

The COVID 19 pandemic is leading us to rethink our certainties about individual liberties and their efficiency.

It is clear now that the governments that reacted the best to the coronavirus epidemic used a complete set of resources including early detection, masks, etc. combined with a massive use of information technologies. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong all set up a detailed tracking of each case.

South Korea, for instance, calls its set of policies: “trace, test and treat.” The Korean government was fast to react from the very beginning of the epidemic. It has implemented a full transparency policy on where, when and how the infections were discovered and investigated. Korean companies developed tests that underwent a fast-track approval process, allowing to implement a free of charge mass-testing operation. Infected patients are immediately isolated, and all suspected cases are traced.

Previous contacts of all people suspected of being infected are traced thanks to their phone records associated with other means including security camera footage, credit card records and GPS data from their cars. This policy was set thanks to a revision of the law prioritizing social security over individual privacy.

Mass messaging is also used: when a new case is discovered, an SMS alert is sent to all phones present in the surroundings. Even though the names are not revealed, a wide range of personal information about these new cases is disclosed: age, sex, neighborhood, where the infection took place and even sometimes occupation and workplace. Timelines of infected people are made publicly available online including all trips, on foot, by car or public transport. People who think they may have been in contact with an infected person are advised to get tested.

In addition, people ordered to be in self-quarantine are requested to install a geofencing app on their phone that triggers an alert to the officials when they leave their allowed perimeter. Fines and even prison sentences are applied to those trying to escape their quarantine rules.

These policies have been enforced thanks to a combination of extensive public and transparent information and cooperation of the society for the goal of reducing the impact of the epidemic.

In the West, intensive tracking is often considered “surveillance capitalism” as declared to Science Magazine by David Leslie, an ethicist at the Alan Turing Institute who studies the governance of data-driven technologies. “We don’t live in a culture of public trust when it comes to data,” he adds. In Europe and in the US, mass testing is slow to be implemented, and contact tracing is facing ethical and technical issues.

As published by 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, of course, such a process would require extensive fine tuning to determine the distance and conditions of social contacts that should trigger an alert as well as how and when to deal with individual rights principles and legal provisions.

In the US, Google and Facebook are both in discussions with the federal government about sharing anonymized location data, but they may have to overcome the complexities of state and local laws as well as the threat of suits by users who may consider the terms and conditions of the services were not respected.

A response that does not infringe on individual rights is the one undertaken by European mobile phone operators Telefonica, Telecom Italia, Telenor, Telia, A1 Telekom Austria, Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom and Orange, which have agreed to share mobile phone location data with the European Commission to track the spread of the coronavirus. The Commission will use anonymized data to protect privacy and aggregate mobile phone location data to coordinate measures tracking the spread of the virus. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), an independent European body in charge of ensuring European institutions respect rights to privacy and data protection, said the project does not breach privacy rules as long as there are safeguards.

Already the result of this data aggregation allowed Orange to establish that more than one million people reportedly fled the Paris area in the days around France’s nationwide lockdown over its coronavirus outbreak. The operator analyzed location data and charted the mass exodus from the capital upon official lockdown announcement. An Orange spokesperson declared to The Independent that “It is absolutely impossible to trace or identify anyone from this data.” The CEO of Orange said the anonymized data not only shows how many people left Paris during the pandemic, but also rising numbers of people elsewhere allowing authorities to map and predict the spread of the epidemic.

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