What’s the Cost of Privacy?

Article By : Nitin Dahad

Given a choice between life and privacy, I’d take life.

In my simplistic mind, I haven’t yet fully comprehended why the world didn’t use all the technology tools at its disposal to contain the novel coronavirus early on. After all, “we have the technology,” as they used to say in the ’70s TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man.”

I began to grasp the answer while I was interviewing the CEO of an IoT security company during the early days of the U.K. lockdown. I noted that my EE Times Europe colleague Maurizio Di Paolo Emilio had written in his article “Covid-19: Taiwan as an Example to the World” that the island had effectively integrated its health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to identify cases and then act as needed to contain the virus. That’s so simple, it’s genius, I thought. Why not do it everywhere?

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The CEO’s response was blunt: Doing the same thing in Europe or the U.S. would violate individual privacy, and we value our privacy dearly. Tracking people to the extent required for Taiwan’s program would simply not be tolerated here. But then, what price do we have to pay for our privacy — tens of thousands of deaths?

What if we think of it differently? In the U.K., we already have extensive surveillance on the streets of cities and towns, as I am sure many other European countries do. And many of these systems are gradually adding facial recognition, lots of local data processing, and artificial intelligence to identify a person’s intent, which the public considers an unacceptable personal intrusion. However, the same public doesn’t even realize that huge swaths of the population freely give away their data every day to companies like Facebook and Google. Where are the demands for privacy there? They’re few and far between, because we’ve accepted some loss of privacy as the tradeoff for getting something “for free.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how the data wealth of social media and internet companies and that of local and national governments might be combined and exploited to serve certain objectives, whether good or bad. Such activity might have affected the outcomes of certain elections and referenda in recent years.

In the case of Covid-19, however, I strongly believe if national governments had collaborated to carry out and share simple biometric monitoring and travel data, they could have prevented many deaths. As “Sapiens” author Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote in the Financial Times, during a public health crisis, governments could encourage people to wear biometric bracelets that monitor body temperature, heart rate, and a few other parameters. The algorithms would know you are sick even before you do, and they would know where you have been and whom you have met.

“The chains of infection could be drastically shortened and even cut altogether,” Harari argues. While he acknowledges the slippery-slope argument that the tracking of citizens during a crisis could normalize and legitimize the practice over the long term, I would add that location tracking is no different from what apps like Facebook and Google already do on most people’s smartphones; for some, it is even hard-coded into the operating system. And what about the many wearable devices, such as fitness trackers, heart rate monitors, and glucose monitors, already uploading our personal data with our blessing?

One of the more well-known wearable-device makers is Fitbit. With its access to data on 30 million active users of its devices around the world, the company has been able to measure the impact of coronavirus, country by country, on parameters like step count and sleep. It was able to show that in Europe, the largest reduction in step counts was seen in Spain, with a 38% drop among its users, followed by Italy and Portugal (down 25% each), Romania (down 24%) and France (down 20%) during the week ended March 22.

Finnish wearable-device maker Oura sponsored research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to see whether an algorithm could be built to help UCSF identify patterns of Covid-19 onset, progression, and recovery. The researchers equipped more than 2,000 health-care workers at UCSF campuses with Oura’s smart ring to track their body temperature, respiratory rate, and heart rate. Going beyond heart rate, a team of researchers from Boston University and the University of Bordeaux are working on a bacteria-derived sensor that could continuously monitor more physiological parameters to provide early warnings for many more diseases.

Those efforts underscore what readers of this publication already know: There is no shortage of sensors and technology to measure the vital data needed to contain and combat a pandemic. In times of crisis, as long as we have put the checks and balances in place to ensure that enforced tracking measures will be lifted after the danger has passed, wouldn’t it be OK to surrender a bit of our privacy?

Given a choice between life and privacy, I’d take life.

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