The United States government “is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts,” according to the Seattle Times, looking for ways to use Americans cell phone metadata and other sources of location data to track outbreaks of the coronavirus and enforce quarantine, social distancing, and curfews if it becomes necessary.
“Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection,” the Seattle Times notes. The information “could help officials predict the next hotspot or decide where to allocate overstretched health resources.”
Although the project is in its early stages, at the moment, the government and companies that collect this type of data believe they can keep it free of identifying information. Facebook, which spoke to other news outlets about possible data-sharing collaborations with the United States government also noted that they’ve engaged in such projects before, though not to combat a deadly disease.
“A task force created by tech executives, entrepreneurs and investors presented a range of ideas around disease mapping and telehealth to the White House during a private meeting Sunday,” Seattle Times says. “The discussions included representatives from tech giants; investors led by the New York-based firm Hangar and well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ron Conway; public-health leaders from Harvard University; and smaller telehealth startups like Ro, two sources said.”
The United States would hardly be the first country to use cell phone and social media data to aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, but it could be the first country to weight the benefits of curbing a public health crisis against a Constitutional right to privacy.
South Korea has been touted as a coronavirus success story, but much of that nation’s ability to quickly identify and quarantine coronavirus patients, effectively slowing the spread of the disease, stems not just from the widespread availability of coronavirus testing. South Korea has a government run “big-data platform” that “stores information of all citizens and resident foreign nationals and integrates all government organisations, hospitals, financial services, mobile operators, and other services into it,” according to the Daily Star, a news organization that covers southeast Asia specifically.
“Whenever someone is tested positive for COVID-19, all the people in the vicinity are provided with the infected person’s travel details, activities, and commute maps for the previous two weeks through mobile notifications sent as a push system,” the outlet adds. “Government-run health services receive information on the person’s contacts, making it easier to track those whom s/he had met during that time, and bring them under observation and medical tests.”
The system ultimately dispatches medical professionals, and uses artificial intelligence to allocate resources, like hospital beds and ambulances. The AI system also, eventually, finds common threads among coronavirus patients, allowing the South Korean government to quarantine specific areas or groups of people.
So far, as noted, the project is in its early stages, and if rolled out, could pose definite challenges, particularly if the system is not only used for monitoring but also enforcement.