Numerous governments around the world have started using citizen-generated data in their efforts to understand, and ultimately stop, the spread of the coronavirus.

In China, a sophisticated cell phone-based “traffic light” system is being rolled out that indicates whether an infected person is clear to move around as normal, or should continue to self-isolate. In Israel, emergency laws have been passed to indicate whether someone may have been physically close to a virus carrier and should thus undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine. In Singapore, Bluetooth functionality on mobile phones is being used to alert people when they are in proximity to someone who has, or has had, COVID-19.

With each of these countries seeing encouraging results – at the time of writing – other governments are understandably stepping up their efforts to replicate policies that seem to be working. In the U.S., the White House has expressed interest in creating a similar type of health-monitoring infrastructure and has called on leading social media platform providers to lend assistance.

Big Tech to the Rescue?

Facebook and Google (and a number of other companies) have quickly deployed teams of engineers and data scientists to work on the issue. A consortium of leading technology developers – many of the top figures in the worlds of AI and big data – has also formed to apply leading-edge commercial research to the public health fight.

Across the pond, the European Union has called for the creation of an app to coordinate a pan-national response and is similarly shepherding senior tech figures from across a wide range of disciplines.

In the desperate rush to save lives and allow people to return to their regular lives – and in turn, save economies – it’s both laudable and logical to turn to data-driven insight, data analysis and social control. Few parents would object if location data from their children’s cell phone could help keep them safe from harm; few politicians would hesitate to use whatever means necessary to keep those kids safe – and keep their parents’ votes.

Yet, it is precisely at this moment of extreme peril, when our attention is focused on the pandemic that confronts us, that we need to think through the potentially even greater peril on the periphery of most people’s line of sight.

By opening ourselves up to data-based monitoring, we are further opening the Pandora’s box of “surveillance” that has silently crept into our modern world in the last 20 years. Unnoticed by the vast majority, we have entered an era in which governments and technology companies know almost everything about us (based on our online activity), in which privacy has withered away, and which every day inches closer toward George Orwell’s vision of 1984 that consumed him as he succumbed to another type of devastating infectious disease in 1948.

Healthcare’s Privacy vs. Prophylactic Trade-off

Health-based monitoring is absolutely the right thing to do in the short-term to help the health of individual people, but at what cost to the long-term health of our society?

Those who are unaware of the surveillance that surrounds them – or untroubled by it – may ask “what surveillance?” and “what damage?” “We should do everything we can – including phone-based contact tracing – to get the virus under control.” Obscure or philosophical responses about the complicated nature of security-vs.-privacy trade-offs melt in the heat generated by finding solutions to the health crisis today.

Those who are aware of the surveillance that surrounds them – and are troubled by it – are probably destined to be on the losing side of the debate in the next few years. Though the Platonic points of the argument can be laid out at length, the need for speed from a jittery public and an impatient news cycle will see politicians from undemocratic and democratic countries alike forgo concerns about privacy and the potential misuse of personal data as the fight against the virus is waged.

And thus, it is likely that health monitoring will become more and more prevalent in a variety of different ways. Cell phone-based contact tracing will likely become common everywhere within short order. Many countries will probably follow Israel’s lead and write this into law. Health “air-locks” will begin sprouting up on buildings – as we suggest in our recent report “After the Virus” – along with “OK2GO” screening protocols.

Nothing will trump the widely held view that beating the virus is our top priority, and that if data can help us, then let’s use it. It wouldn’t be a surprise if soon, something as seemingly verboten as HIPAA is amended as people anxious about sharing health-related data come to be regarded with suspicion. (This is a twist in the zeitgeist that author Dave Eggers anticipated in his novel The Circle.) 

Whose Data Is It?

When data models as powerful as Tectonix’s are available, most responsible, upstanding members of society would say, “of course we should be using that type of technology.” At this moment in time – arguably the greatest worldwide public emergency since the Second World War – it would be very hard to say we shouldn’t.

But with many examples of misuse and abuse of private personal data already in the public domain, with legislative efforts to stop privacy either nascent or ineffective, and with businesses and governments insatiably hungry for more and more data, surveillance (whether practiced by businesses or governments) is a ticking time bomb that will cause incredible damage when – not if – it goes off.

When health, movement and biometric data is used to not just see what we look at but also how we physically, emotionally and intellectually respond, and when attempts to manipulate these responses become the norm, as they surely will, a threshold into an entirely new world – a world that we were warned about, and which a generation or two ago seemed (to some) melodramatically implausible – will have been crossed.

We are close to that threshold now. Our response to the virus will take us closer.

To paraphrase Bill Gates’ famous phrase, we may be overestimating short-term benefits and underestimating long-term costs. In the world we are entering, we may be healthy, but will we be free?

This blog is part of our special report on the future of infectious disease. Stay tuned for more blogs on this topic.

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Ben Pring

Ben Pring

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books What To Do When Machines... Read more