In many places around the world, governments are using or considering digital tracking to monitor and contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
In some European countries like Italy and Germany, mobile carriers are sharing aggregated location data with government to help them monitor whether people are complying with curbs on movement, and identify potential hot spots where people are gathering.3
The government of Poland is requiring quarantined people to use an app to take and submit regular selfies to prove that they’re at home, and send police to the homes of people who do not comply. And in Taiwan, infected individuals are “geo-fenced” at home - location data on their phones alert authorities of movement outside of a permitted area.4,5 Multiple governments around the world, as well as Google and Apple, are working on contact tracing capabilities and apps.
Contact tracing uses Bluetooth signals to detect other phones nearby. If a person tests positive for the virus, the data can in theory be used to find other people that person may have been in contact with - though there are serious concerns about whether Bluetooth contact is a reasonable approximation of the physical contact that spreads the virus.6
Privacy experts are already sounding the alarm about the risks of adopting tracking technologies without careful limitation of their capabilities and scope. Location data, if gathered, can reveal sensitive, private information about peoples’ lives. Even supposedly anonymized data can sometimes reveal individual identities - and data leaks and hacks of supposedly secure databases are unfortunately common.7
Many people also worry that surveillance tools or powers brought in to address the pandemic will become permanent, as was seen with supposedly short-term powers brought in in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks.
The principles that OpenMedia and other civil rights groups have jointly developed would bring in sensible protections to limit the potential for harm, like limiting who information can be shared with and how long records are kept, and putting in time limits on any special measures. Most importantly they underline that non-surveillance-based and consensual methods can be more effective and should be implemented first.