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Business Unusual

Privacy and contact tracing... it's complicated!

15 April 2020 7:15 PM

The greatest risk to your privacy may be determined by what you willingly share.

Two million infections, over 125 000 deaths and still climbing; it is fair to say that none of the terrorist threats this century can rival the impact a new virus is having on humanity. So, given the lengths countries were willing to go to counter terrorism, surely nothing should be spared to fight this pandemic?

The lessons from fighting terrorism are that once we give up civil liberty, the chances of getting it back diminish.

But does surveillance and authoritarianism drive this decline or might it be something else - our own desire for publicity?

While technology companies build their platforms to acquire as many users as possible, the tool they relied on to expand their reach was asking users to share their views of the platform or their success of a game with their family, friends and publically, and we did. Many liked it. When social media companies allowed anyone to publish their views about anything we happily did it. If we did not have something to say ourselves (most of us don’t) we shared the thoughts of others we agree with or, even easier, we simply liked it.

Our thoughts and comments that would once have been kept private we now actively shared publically and it was not only things we liked. Calling out those we did not agree with became as popular.

Some chose to use a different name or refused to use a picture of themselves, but the majority shared their views using their names and their images. We may rate privacy as important now, but our actions suggest we crave publicity more.

This piece hopes to look at what and how we can create a balance between what must be protected and what should be transparent.

Here are two scenarios

Should we pursue methods that can limit the spread of Covid-19 and allow those not infected to begin moving around again?

Should we pursue methods that can limit the potential for high-speed collisions caused by drivers exceeding the speed limit to reduce the annual road death toll?

Odds are you might agree with the first statement and disagree with the second.

Both are likely to claim a lot of lives. South Africa is likely to see many more deaths than the 27 people who lost their battle to Covid-19. Over 14 000 die on the roads annually. A vaccine in the next two years should see the viral deaths reduce to a fraction in that time, yet the road deaths will most likely continue to climb.

Why do we have this attitude? I am no expert but odds are we give up control of things we believe we can’t control while we are reluctant to so do for things we believe we can control.

It is less a question of technology but rather our own psychology that may see those who wish to erode our privacy get their way because we focused on the wrong part of the problem.

The real issue is what we share, not who gets access to it.

Let’s begin with the various plans for contact tracing. Some are better than others.

There are no perfect solutions because this is a health problem, not a technology or surveillance one.

Ideally, we would want a system that allows people to move about freely and only when you develop symptoms and then get positively tested would it begin to let those who you may have interacted with for sufficient time to get screened, potentially self isolate and, if needed, get tested.

The only time anyone other than yourself would be able to access any information is when you test positive. Once you have your result, the service activated by the medical authority will alert those who were in contact with you. They would not know you tested positive; they would not know where the potential contact occurred.

The closest to this is the system designed in Singapore. The catch is that not everyone is using it. Unless most people do, it is even less effective.

It also uses Bluetooth to connect with phones nearby which is a fair solution, but many devices turn it off to save battery or to fit a profile you select - not being on all the time might give a false sense that you are fine when you may have been exposed but the opposite is also true. Bluetooth has a range of about 10 to 30 metres. You could be quite far from someone while registering as being close. One way to improve on that is to only count contact that lasts for a set period of time. The catch here is that 30 minutes in a restaurant 10 metres apart might seem like a larger infection risk than bumping into someone who just coughed into their hand and touches you to apologise.

The rest have even more issues. The collaboration between Google and Apple would have the ability built into the phones solving the scale issue but will take many months before it is ready. It will also be up to the user to alert those when they are infected to avoid having to create agreements with the many authorities that might want to be the one to activate it. We have enough history with good intentions to know someone will send an alert just to see what happens and for those who really want to cause trouble would get a bunch of phones to travel everywhere in a city and then report themselves infected resulting in a major outbreak in a location that actually does not have one.

Google at the moment posts aggregated data to demonstrate the degree to which people are remaining at home.

China has a version built on the Alibaba platform that restricts the travel of certain users who are not told why they can’t travel. They must either stay home or go into quarantine. It does not require a test. Consider the disruption to your life when for some reason your phone declares you infected and you can’t do anything about it.

Estimote focuses on contact tracing employees in large businesses, a very useful option with many additional uses, most are justified but some could be used to police workers in a way they may negatively affect the relationship between staff and management.

Other options are focussed on those that are already in quarantine or lockdown. Leaving your home when in quarantine could see you fined or jailed depending where it is being used, travelling beyond the locations for shopping or other approved visits could see you fined or arrested.

Dubai is using its speed camera network to spot when non-essential workers are using the roads and even essential workers when they don’t only go to work and back.

Swiss telecoms companies will report phones clustered in groups of more than 20 in a 100 square metre public area. Good for physical distancing, but perfect for preventing citizens from gathering to protest.

This is beginning to sound worse than the virus.


15 April 2020 7:15 PM

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