A delicate balance: Responding to a crisis with surveillance tech  

Branka Marijan Emerging Technologies, Featured, News

New technologies have been key to attempts to track and respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, one of the first warnings about a possible pandemic came from Canadian artificial intelligence (AI) company BlueDot. As the now established story goes, BlueDot’s algorithm, which essentially scans multiple news sources in many languages and different networks and forums, warned about the disease days before many governments issued any alerts.

Technology also enables us to respond to the pandemic in new ways. Consider, for example, the ingenious use of 3D printing to make much needed face shields for healthcare workers.

Still, as more surveillance technologies are being used in this fight, a broader conversation has begun on the need to balance the demands of public health with the preservation of privacy and human rights. Right now, the latter might need to be sacrificed to some extent. But civil libertarians such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and other privacy advocates and experts want to ensure that technology used in these exceptional times does not become the new normal. Too often, history shows, temporary measures imposed by governments to meet a crisis have become permanent.

Digital contact tracing

Existing technology allows governments, for example, to tap into the cellphone data of diagnosed individuals; with that information, which includes locations, authorities can trace the earlier movements of these individuals and so gain some understanding of the spread of the virus. Such location information can help health authorities understand how the virus is spreading and also aid in the early identification of others who might have been exposed or infected. This is a contemporary from of “contact tracing,” an essential process used by epidemiologists in these crises.

Coronavirus surveillance technology currently in use worldwide. (Click on image to enlarge view.)

The benefits of employing data in this way are clear. Authorities have a better sense of how many people should be alerted and get a more accurate picture of the level of spread. Authorities can then act more swiftly to protect the most vulnerable.

China, South Korea, and Taiwan have, it appears, been successful in such a use of cellphone data. According to The New York Times, South Korea has combined the COVID-19 patient location data with surveillance-camera footage and credit card purchases to trace individual movements and the path of the virus. Taiwan is being held up as a model to be emulated.

For example, Israel announced that it was allowing its domestic security agency to examine the data for diagnosed individuals for the two weeks prior to diagnosis. In Lombardy, the hardest hit Italian province, cellphone data is being examined by authorities to determine if individuals are following lockdown orders.

Other countries are either considering or developing applications that would be downloaded by users to help authorities gather critical information. Will individuals be able to choose to use these applications or will they be forced to, in the name of public safety? In South Korea, self-isolated individuals are required to comply with the use of such an app.

According to MediaNama, a mobile and digital news site, 13 countries have already introduced digital surveillance measures and applications in response to COVID-19. The list will doubtless soon grow.

Poland has developed an application that uses not only GPS location data but time-stamped photos and facial-recognition technology. The data is intended to be kept for years. Other countries also seem to be gathering more than location information on citizens.

Advocates worry that unless these measures are temporary mass surveillance will lead to the creep of population-management tools. China’s surveillance methods, and particularly its surveillance of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, are often provided as an example of the ways in which the technology could be used. In Xinjiang, every movement of the population is tracked and monitored and individuals are sent to re-education camps for sharing content or voicing controversial views. China has also started to police online chats and a criticism of the way in which the Chinese regime handled the Covid-19 crisis could result in hours of interrogation.

For others, the worry is that the once the tools are in place they will continue to be used for different purposes that have nothing to do with public health concerns. For example, the technologies and systems initially used to respond to threat of terrorism are now being deployed against asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border. Again, once the tools are used it will be important to ensure that unscrupulous governments don’t continue to use them against political opponents or particular ethnic communities.

Staying vigilant

Of each technological response to the crisis, we need to ask: Is it necessary? When will it end? What controls are in place to prevent inappropriate use of the data that is being gathered?

Exceptional times require exceptional measures. Yes, certainly. Everyone must be willing to make personal sacrifices to save the lives of fellow citizens, friends, neighbours, family. But not at the cost of hard-earned and basic human liberties.

Great care must be taken with personal health information. As Teresa Scassa, a University of Ottawa law professor, notes, “In Canada, the disclosure of specific personal health information of individuals – or information that could lead to their identification – is an extreme measure that breaches basic personal health information protection requirements.” The decision to disclose health information that could potentially identify individuals should not be taken lightly.

Limits must be placed on what data is collected, how it is used, and how long it is kept. Focusing on voluntary participation and anonymizing data could address some privacy concerns. Requiring secure deletion of information after a certain period of time is also important.

In an age when misuse and manipulation of data abound, we must all remain vigilant. Canadians and everyone living in democratic societies must consider how to achieve the delicate balance of protecting the population while maintaining fundamental rights and freedoms.

We will come out of this crisis. We must not emerge with the loss of what we value most.

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