As news of a novel coronavirus emerged from China, experts realised that how infectious diseases evolved and moved through vulnerable populations—would be valuable to health-care workers and elected officials as the virus spread across the globe. The methods and tools are the same, and epidemiological models are easily adapted. However, many of them work with endemic pathogens. Coronavirus is new. Since the most urgent imperative is to flatten the curve of infections, it is crucial to know where public health strategies like stay-at-home orders are working and where they are not.
Apps on cell phones emit a constant trail of longitude and latitude readings, making it possible to follow consumers through time and space. Location data are often triangulated with other, seemingly innocuous slivers of personal information. Though the data are often anonymised, studies have shown that they can be easily unmasked to reveal identities—names, addresses, phone numbers, and any number of intimacies. Digital technologies, which work at scale, instantly provide detailed information culled from security cameras, license-plate readers, biometric scans, drones, G.P.S. devices, cell-phone towers, Internet searches, and commercial transactions. They can be useful for public-health surveillance in the same way that they facilitate all kinds of spying by governments, businesses, and malign actors.
Public health officials are scrambling to rapidly ramp up contact tracing, which involves tracking down people who may have come in contact with someone who has a contagious disease. Google and Apple are looking to take advantage of the location devices we all carry—our phones. According to Woodrow Hartzog, Professor of Law and Computer Science at Northeastern University, these methods come with concerns about privacy and data protection. The associate director of the School of Public Health’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics has created the COVID-19 mobility data network, a network of epidemiologists from universities around the world, to try to track the efficacy of social-distancing measures. The software solves the query and scrubs data collected by tech companies and use it to track the coronavirus’s spread without violating privacy.