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Can we protect our privacy while tracking spread of coronavirus?

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As many states have started to look at what they would need in order to reopen, technology is being developed that could potentially track active cases in the community. There’s been a struggle, though, when it comes to striking a balance between protecting privacy and public safety.

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The technology being looked at right now would come in the form of a smartphone app. The app would use a phone’s Bluetooth to ping other phones every few seconds, and then record that data to track everyone the owner comes into contact with throughout the day.

That would allow health officials to go back and trace the people someone with coronavirus came into contact with, and then isolate those people to ensure they don’t spread the virus.

The main issue that comes into play with this kind of technology regards how else that data could potentially be used.

“There are obviously significant civil liberties implications,” Shankar Narayan told KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show. “This is a large scale collection of location information and other data, potentially about people.”

“There’s the involvement of both government and private actors, where we may not have control over how they use the data — they may not use the data in ways that are transparent to people,” he added.

Narayan is the former director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project, and a renowned Seattle-based expert on privacy and technology. With this particular technology, he points out that it has both the capacity to be an effective tool to fight back against the virus, and something that could be abused if used improperly.

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Ultimately, it comes down to doing the necessary work beforehand to establish safeguards.

“You can use policy limitations,” Narayan noted. “So have a strict purpose limitation, and here the purpose really should be limited to identifying people who are positive and notifying them so that they can self-isolate. That should be the entire purpose of the system, and it should be made enforceable.”

With that in mind, he points out that it’s more important now than ever to ensure that we’re doing the legwork to ensure any technology implemented in this way doesn’t contain loopholes for abuse.

“Designing privacy protective systems are even more important right now, at a time when governments we see around the world are using exactly this kind of crisis to consolidate surveillance and reduce democratic freedoms,” he cautioned.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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