Data tracking has become vital in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it comes at quite the cost: your privacy.
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, crippled the world. With all significant events canceled, companies shut down with only essential businesses kept running, and people ordered to stay at home, the world is working hard to fight against the virus which, as of yet, sees no sign of relenting.
In the last few weeks, big names in the tech industry, such as Google and Facebook, have come forward to lend their aid against the COVID-19 pandemic. They are now sharing location-tracking information with the various governments of the world. The information provided by these tech giants had become vital in the formulation of COVID-19 containment strategies.
However, the sharing of such information also brings forward issues that threaten to violate the privacy of the people.
Anonymity in location tracking
People are reassured that the data shared has removed any identifying markers. It means that anonymity is strictly being implemented as their movements are tracked. Location tracking has proven helpful to public health officials. In particular, it lets them know whether or not the people are following the lockdown and stay at home orders.
Furthermore, if a certain area has been found to have more people outside their homes and there is a rise in COVID-19 infections, the authorities would be able to use that data when deciding the appropriate actions.
In cases like these, it seems perfectly understandable to track movement trends as it does not necessarily violate privacy. The data shared came from people who had enabled location-tracking on their mobile devices, which is often the case.
The case of the Spring Breakers
Last month, news broke out regarding spring breakers that disregarded social distancing protocols and went partying amid the coronavirus pandemic. This had been a high profile case as the spring breakers in question received widespread criticism from the general public.
Their rash actions had led to the best example of the necessity of location tracking. Tectonix partnering with X-Mode had analyzed the location data of the anonymized spring breakers and mapped out where these people went after they visited Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The data reveals the spring breakers had spread out all over the U.S. and possibly brought the virus with them.
Want to see the true potential impact of ignoring social distancing? Through a partnership with @xmodesocial, we analyzed secondary locations of anonymized mobile devices that were active at a single Ft. Lauderdale beach during spring break. This is where they went across the US: pic.twitter.com/3A3ePn9Vin
— Tectonix GEO (@TectonixGEO) March 25, 2020
The issue with privacy
Reports claimed that there are anonymity and aggregation in location tracking. It does not take away the fact that tech companies like Google and Facebook can, theoretically, track a person individually. Both companies had stressed that they would not do so. However, if ever there is also a chance that the recipients of such data would ask for more.
As the rate of coronavirus infection continues to grow, there is a possibility that the governments would ask for more specific data to provide them with more options in handling the pandemic at the cost of the people’s privacy.
The ends justify the means
Taiwan has received praise worldwide for the effective actions it had taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, the method used by the country, while effective, is also questionable.
Mixing technology with human effort, Taiwan was able to ensure that people who are quarantined stay quarantined by using an “electronic fence” that is made possible by location tracking on mobile phones. What happened was that the authorities were able to keep track of the people exposed to the virus using phone signals that alert them whenever monitored individual leave their homes or turn off their phones.
The method had raised privacy concerns, but its success and the ongoing fight against the COVID-19 could potentially promote Machiavellian actions in other countries, wherein the ends would justify the means.
Images courtesy of DW News/YouTube Screenshot