Israel is not alone in seeing geolocation data as a valuable tool to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. South Korea, Singapore, China, Taiwan and Italy all have used geolocation data from cellphones in combination with other measures in their containment efforts — to facilitate contact tracing, to enforce quarantines and to alert the public to potential hot spots. Last week, there were reports of talks among the White House, tech companies and health experts about how to use location data to combat the coronavirus in the United States.
The nature of the data used in Israel’s program, which has since been restricted by the country’s high court, is quite different from what was reportedly being discussed at the White House. Participants in those preliminary talks stressed that they were investigating uses of aggregated anonymized data — they would remove information that could be associated with particular individuals and look at bigger-picture population movements.
Even so, any plan to use Americans’ location data in any manner should be accompanied by basic privacy assurances, including that private companies not use the data for non-coronavirus purposes, that the data never be shared with law enforcement or immigration agencies, and that the data be destroyed after the pandemic. These assurances would not hinder creative and effective uses of the data. They’re all the more essential given past failures by government and industry to appropriately safeguard data.
Even anonymized data could be valuable in this crisis; seeing people’s movements could help health officials determine whether they are adhering to social distancing orders. But, while there’s been no public discussion yet of plans to use more powerful forms of surveillance to combat the coronavirus, as the crisis worsens — and especially ahead of a possible second wave — enhanced surveillance tools might be appropriate. Public health experts note that location data, along with an aggressive testing regimen, could be extremely useful in identifying and isolating exposed individuals.
All the more reason to get right from the start the balance of privacy and public health. To earn and keep the public trust while reaching for powerful tools with potential for abuse, an administration must communicate with nuance and transparency. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has squandered credibility in communicating about the coronavirus — from falsely claiming that tests were available to all who wanted them to overplaying the potential of remedies for the virus. Barring a dramatic change in President Trump’s communication style — loose with facts, scant on details — tech companies must be prepared to correct the administration if and when it misrepresents facts and be as transparent as possible about what data they are using and how.