Technology and Spying

The Issue:

To more effectively fight a pandemic, enormous benefits can be realized from drawing upon the integrated use of “big data”– immigration records, cell phone locational tracking data, health status records, drone technology using facial recognition software, and credit card data. Effective advances in disease control however must be weighed against personal privacy and social concerns.

These kinds of data can help scientists track the location and spread of disease, including persons, places and modes of transport. They can advance strategies to better control epidemic transmission short of strategies like isolating whole regions of a country. In the process, they allow authorities to determine:

  • (a) with whom you had been in contact,
  • (b) whether or not you were and are violating curfew or travel or quarantine rules, and
  • (c) whether you were buying, receiving or taking certain drugs that could indicate and expose private family decisions and health concerns.

Hong Kong uses personal electronic wristbands for this purpose. Citing emergency powers, Israel, Taiwan and Iran are accessing and using all cell phone data without consent to fight disease transmission. These countries propose to use such data to notify vulnerable individuals by text message to return home immediately and self-quarantine.

In South Korea, one of the hardest hit countries, the government used GPS phone tracking, credit card records, and surveillance video to track the movements of virus carriers and publish them publicly. In China, a colour-coded rating system is used to reward positive behaviour. It also punishes individuals for violations of unsocial behaviour at subways, malls and offices, by scanning people seeking to enter, and allowing or denying them access based on their ratings.

Ethical and Moral Dilemmas:

Tracking cell phones together with using other counter-terror technologies and techniques are being used to fight COVID-19. One example is biometric authentication, monitoring and data retention of those who are hospitalized, or visiting hospitals, or those who have succumbed to illness. Another is identifying who it is you may have come in contact with within the five or fourteen days that you first displayed disease symptoms or went into quarantine. Yet another application is monitoring to determine whether or not individuals are following quarantine rules and social distancing norms.

These intrusive uses of individual data can be used by epidemiologists and other scientists for enhancing health outcomes. This includes spatial modelling of the spread of virus proliferation, testing the effectiveness of specific lock-down programs, and measuring the efficacy of different methods to promote handwashing, mask wearing, seeking care, testing, and self-quarantining.

What are reasonable standards or permissions needed? What are reasonable warranties of freedom of speech, travel and assembly? For example, should all data be wiped out within 30 days after its use? Or, should all such data be wiped out post control of the outbreak?

Extensive use of surveillance data contributes to a borderless world of less anonymity, more vulnerability, and concerns over state regulation of personal lives. In the wrong hands, this access to “big data” empowers criminals, thieves, extortionists and hackers. Some experts warn of an “infodemic”- an avalanche of harmful mis-information. Once such powers of surveillance are accepted, is it harder to roll them back?

These Deep Machine Learning technologies, using Big Data, allow governments to sharpen and expedite abilities to track outbreaks, assist in contact tracing, and conduct day-to-day infectious disease surveillance. Traditional ethical challenges related to surveillance persist (e.g., privacy, de-identification of personal data, and mobility rights) and these are heightened by the unintended consequences such as potential stigma and discrimination related to the precision of biometric-based contact tracing.

Legal and Values Dimensions:

Surveillance in a pandemic climate pits competing values against each other: individual civil liberties versus public welfare. This is part of a tension between autonomy, privacy, civil liberty and the potential to use our personal data for the public welfare. Care must be taken to find a legal and ethical way to go about using this. That is to say, from a practical ethics standpoint, it’s very important to think about issues like consent, transparency in the way that the innovation is developed, and decisions about who has access, as well as the ways it is deployed on individuals and groups.

Telecommunication companies are now being encouraged by government security and health officials to share aggregate smartphone data with health authorities in Italy, Germany and Austria to monitor whether people are complying with self-isolation demands to slow the spread of COVID-19.  China, Taiwan and South Korea have taken more invasive measures by using smartphone location pings to trace individuals who have tested positive, or to enforce quarantine orders. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the domestic spy agency to sift through cellphone data that was covertly gathered to fight terrorism to retrace the steps of people who have contracted the novel coronavirus.

In general, free and open access to information is thought to be a good thing. However, various freedom of information and rights to personal privacy standards can become an issue:

  1. Personal Privacy: Doctors, clinicians and nurses who use these data are expected to respect patient privacy and confidentiality.
  2. Public Health: Officials have an obligation to violate personal privacy without consent when multiple lives are at risk or vulnerable others are unknowingly being put at risk by infected others.
  3. Public Policy: Knowledge of health outcomes that could affect diagnostic, infection and survival rates should be a right for decision-making affecting the common good.
  4. Curiosity: Public knowledge that does not affect treatment options needs to be filtered by caution against the unwanted public stigmatizing of individuals (Asian, Chinese, Iranians) and communities associated with transmitting disease.
  5. Scientific Research: Mining of databases can be used by scientists and drug-makers to find new therapies, test certain experimental drugs, and improve health outcomes.

New technologies are emerging that are not yet governed by legal or civil rights jurisprudence. For example, infrared thermometer guns pointed at someone’s forehead are an effective tool to identify the elevated temperature, lung illnesses, and probable health status of immigrants or travellers attempting to enter a country, or hospital, or city. Facial recognition software combined with community-installed camera technology in order to keep certain citizens from freely traveling in certain times and places to access certain destinations.

Potentially intrusive high tech would seem to pose real vulnerabilities. Could the sick be afraid to come and be denied access to hospitals? Would health-compromised workers be compelled to come to work in order to get paid in order to pay bills? Could well-intentioned family members be prohibited from voluntarily caring for relatives who otherwise were being cared for in an under-staffed long term seniors care facility?

Further Reading:


About the Author:

David Nitkin


  1. Avatar

    Glenn Brown

    | Reply

    Excellent overview.
    The Tri-Council Statement principles should be applied to this enormous gathering of data.
    A major concern about this effort is deep distrust of authoritarian regimes’ gathering this info, particularly U.S. where so many servers holding this info are located – data from other countries become subject to Patriot Act. Even countries with currently non-authoritarian regimes need to ask what if they do turn authoritarian.
    If all the data are being gathered by AI, what humans know for certain what the AI is, and is not, doing with it?

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