Several European countries are considering tracing users’ phone data to stop the spread of the new corona virus, which talks about concerns from privacy advocates who say such digital surveillance can limit civil liberties.
The United Kingdom, Germany and Italy are evaluating powerful and invasive tools that would identify citizens’ personal interactions that can spread the virus. These proposed apps would use real-time phone information to identify virus carriers and people they may have infected.
Such tools would mark a significant departure from existing European disease surveillance efforts, which have so far focused on tracking people’s movements with aggregated telephone site data so as not to identify individuals.
Contact tracking apps being considered by European governments would go far beyond what these governments are currently getting from wireless carriers to identify “hot spots” of disease and human concentration.
Authorities in the episode of Italy’s outbreak have used transport data to highlight where people are ignoring home-at-home orders. Information collected for Italian officials in severe casualties northern state of Lombardy does not allow authorities to identify individuals but showed that 30 percent of phone users were out and about over the weekend.
Although legal protections exist in most democracies to protect digital privacy, the danger of coronaviruses can quickly force decision makers to ignore them. On Friday, the European Union’s data protection authority cautiously approved pausing confidentiality during the public health crisis.
Italy’s Lazio region has launched a voluntary app to help quarantine people or who believe they have been in contact with others infected with coronavirus. Poland has introduced a more intrusive app to execute a 14-day quarantine for an estimated 80,000 people. In South Korea, a mandatory app provides self-insulation for those who are ordered to maintain it. Anyone who violates quarantine can be fined $ 8,400 or up to one year in prison.
Taiwan and Singapore also use smartphone apps to enforce quarantine via “electronic fences” that alert the authorities when someone moves out of quarantine. Hong Kong health authorities use electronic bracelets to monitor all foreign travelers who are ordered to self-insulate.
Italy’s Minister for Technical Innovation, Paola Pisano, said on Monday that a government working group is submitting a request to track app candidates on Tuesday and expects to evaluate them by the end of the week.
Europeans are investigating the South Korean contact tracking model, which includes the use of personal information including immigration, public transport and credit card information in addition to GPS location tracking data.
Michael Parker, an Oxford University team ethicist, said people are more likely to use a contact tracking app if not forced – and the greater the participation, the better the chance of identifying “hot spots” and containing the virus.
Location data from wireless carriers can still produce many false positive effects. GPS data is often inaccurate as Ashkan Soltani, a former US Federal Trade Commission technologist, found and incorrectly identified strangers who coincide when they are actually in the same high-rise building.
The closest analogs in the US are apps from startups K Health and Buoy Health that let people self-diagnose with an online questionnaire. If their symptoms are consistent with COVID-19, the individual can be contacted by a physician to determine the next step.
New York-based K Health shares information with the government for a “heat map” of virus dissemination but says it keeps personal information private.