How would you feel if a text message appeared on your phone telling you that you have been identified being in close proximity to an infected person and you should self-quarantine yourself for the next two weeks? Would you feel afraid for your health, angry that your privacy had been invaded, or worried that this was just a first move by a Big Technology Brother into your day-to-day life? Or maybe all of the above.
The problem is, this is no longer a hypothetical situation. On March 18, Israelis started getting the pictured message on their smart phones. The barrage started after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed the Shin Bet domestic spy agency to start monitoring the locations of those with the coronavirus and those who could be in contact with them. It’s quite an operational shift for the agency which is usually busy tracking Palestinian and Israeli extremists.
Big Brother is texting you
Text messages were an additional step by the Israeli Health Ministry and came on the heels of them publicizing the dates and locations that infected people had visited any locations. The shift from interviews to phone data has provoked a mix of protests and understanding within the country. “I guess I can understand why they’re doing it,” said Omar to NPR. “But it makes you think what other private personal information they have access to, and if it’s being used in the appropriate way.” Other people mentioned in the NPR article mentioned being stopped by the police while driving family members to the doctor – and having the officer know family member names.
Location data could be just the start
Just how accurate the location data might be is a question. GPS technology in a normal smartphone can pinpoint a person’s location within 5 to 6 yards if outdoors and 10 to 20 yards according to Sharon Perry, a cellular tracing expert. That’s less precise than the usual recommended two yards of social distancing. It is an open question if additional data sources are being used to identify and locate individuals. The Israeli program was rushed into play without the usual Parliamentary review. Not only does this have civil libertarians concerned, it also increases the risk that additional organizations have uncontrolled access to the data – and might be tempted to use it for their own purposes. There is also concern that government authorities will step back from collecting, storing, and analyzing this data once the pandemic is over.
It’s a government move, not an Israeli one
It’s easy to dismiss this tracking as an Israeli specialty, a move by a politician grasping at straws and technology to postpone his demise and trial for corruption. But that would be incorrect. Cellphone surveillance and location data is being used by a number of governments and companies in this time of pandemic. Some of the few that are already trying this tactic are China, Iran, and South Korea. On one hand, it’s a logical way to inform people of potential infections and the importance of social distancing. On the other, it’s a great way to get granular location on the population’s location and meeting habits. In the Iranian context, the outbreak of coronavirus has come after mass protests with hundreds reportedly killed by the authorities.
You can just do these text alerts and messages privately
Do health alerts have to be invasive of your personal privacy? Not according to the folks at MIT and Harvard. They have launched an app that does the same function of alerting users when they may have come in contact with an infected person – but without the involvement of the central powers at the phone company or government. Other people contributing to the project have come from The Mayo Clinic, TripleBlind, EyeNectra, and Link Ventures. Private Kit: Safe Paths lets users see if they have come in contact with someone carrying the coronavirus—provided that the person has shared this information—without identifying the person. In addition, an app user who tests positive can also choose to share location data with health officials, who can then make it public. The app only asks for location data in phone permissions and not access to contact lists. It’s an interesting approach and is available in the Google Play Store.