Image source: The Intercept 2020, MIT Technology Review Volume 123 Number 3 [2, 6].
Maputi E.Botlhole, Spring 2020
The COVID-19 outbreak coerced communities across the globe to enter into unprecedented territory, which compelled multiple stakeholders to devise new social contracts in response to the health crisis. The authority of state actors became more pronounced in the instituting of lockdowns, enforcing of social distancing guidelines and the re-directing of resources to healthcare workers at the frontlines of the pandemic. Thus far, communities across the globe have adhered to terms of new social contracts in recognition of social benefit over individual benefit. However, the move towards digitization in an effort to assess the role of technology to help limit the spread of COVID-19 has reinvigorated public discourse on the need to weigh public health benefits against the loss of privacy. This is because countries across the world have repurposed mass surveillance technologies such as location tracking and facial recognition to conduct rapid contact tracing. Internet sovereigns such as Google and Apple also announced an unprecedented partnership to help public health agencies worldwide leverage smartphones to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. This paper will 1) de-blackbox digital location tracking for COVID-19 contact tracing through GPS and Bluetooth enabled devices 2) highlight the case studies of South Korea and Israel to illustrate that the properties of these mass surveillance technologies is not a problem; rather the challenge is with blatant disregard for privacy 3) discuss the Apple and Google joint effort as a model for privacy-preserving contact tracing 4) argue for stronger data protection laws to limit the possibility of function creep and surreptitious use of health surveillance data and technology post COVID-19.
COVID-19 like SARS and Ebola is a zoonotic disease that is believed to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan City located in Hubei province, China . The first case or “patient zero” of COVID-19 is unknown because reports indicate that in mid-November of 2019, whistleblowers such as the late Dr.Li Wenliang were silenced by local police, and accused of “spreading rumors” after disseminating information about a SARS-like virus via WeChat . The suppression of information that could’ve been useful in the containment of the virus; coupled by the targeting of healthcare workers through instant messaging platforms such as WeChat created an antagonistic stance on the role of surveillance technologies in this global health crisis. The idea that the technical underpinnings of surveillance technologies that were used to actively censor doctors, could be repurposed for case identification and contact tracing during COVID-19 continues to be a sensitive and controversial issue. However, the argument is that the properties of these mass surveillance technologies is not a problem; rather the challenge is with antagonistic information control, blatant disregard for privacy and undermining of civil liberties.
Image source: Citizen’s Lab Report About How Censorship Works on YY and WeChat .
The creators of WeChat have since adapted censorship methods such as optical character recognition for content moderation to debunk misinformation and to counter the spread of disinformation on COVID-19. On the server-side, the surveillance method of optical character recognition works by extracting text from an image and censoring certain blacklisted text . In addition to censorship, contact tracing is a methodology that has been credited with helping to limit the spread of other zoonotic diseases such as Ebola. In the public health sphere, contact tracing has been done manually by deployed healthcare workers. According to the World Health Organization, contact tracing is “close contact with someone who is infected with a virus, such as the Ebola virus, are at higher risk of becoming infected themselves, and of potentially further infecting others .” The WHO breaks down the monitoring process into 3 basic steps, verbatim:
- Contact identification: Once someone is confirmed as infected with a virus, contacts are identified by asking about the person’s activities and the activities and roles of the people around them since onset of illness. Contacts can be anyone who has been in contact with an infected person: family members, work colleagues, friends, or health care providers .
- Contact listing: All persons considered to have contact with the infected person should be listed as contacts. Efforts should be made to identify every listed contact and to inform them of their contact status, what it means, the actions that will follow, and the importance of receiving early care if they develop symptoms. Contacts should also be provided with information about prevention of the disease. In some cases, quarantine or isolation is required for high risk contacts, either at home, or in hospital.
- Contact follow-up: Regular follow-up should be conducted with all contacts to monitor for symptoms and test for signs of infection.
Giff source: TIME, Coronavirus Brief .
Public healthcare workers have been conducting contact tracing for years with a robust workforce needed to break disease transmission chains; nowadays the capabilities of surveillance technologies offer an opportunity to bolster this practice. China as ground zero of COVID-19 utilized the government’s evolving algorithmic surveillance systems for contact tracing as a response to the health crisis . The Chinese government introduced a “Close Contact Detector” mobile application that uses big data gleaned from the database systems of public health authorities, the Ministry of Transport, China Railway, China’s aviation authority and mobile data to notify users if they had been in close proximity to people who had tested positive for COVID-19 . The users of the “Close Contact Detector” app were required to register with a phone number and ID number in order to see if they had worked, lived or traveled with a person confirmed to have tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 14 days of contact . The “Close Contact Detector” allowed a central database analyzed by an artificial intelligence algorithm to collect data on user movement and coronavirus diagnosis. The user interface then displayed a green, amber or red code to relax or enforce restrictions on movement .The smartphone application had a plug-in to WeChat and other mobile applications hence China was able to garner engagement metrics of 130 million recurrent users within the first month of launching the mobile application . The government was also in a position to leverage the large volumes of collected data because China was already a surveillance state prior to the global health crisis .
Video source: China Central Television News Agency (CCTV – YouTube Channel).
Critics and activists continue to question China’s “successful” deployment of mass surveillance technologies to limit the spread of COVID-19, due to the belief that the repurposing of the mass surveillance technologies is also an ongoing attempt to rewire people’s sensibilities about data privacy, location tracking and aggressive collection of personal data . Mass surveillance technologies present a possibility that was not available during prior pandemics, and China is one example of how a digital location tracking ecosystem enabled by smartphones, big data and cloud computing could curb the spread of COVID-19. The role of cross-sector partnerships is also important as evidenced by a case in Mexico, wherein a peer-to-peer platform such as Uber was able to share rider data with government authorities to trace the route of an infected tourist . Furthermore, Uber and the government authorities notified 240 other users who had taken rides with the same driver . The mapping of people’s movements through their digital footprints for purposes of contact tracing can be done in a responsible and privacy preserving manner; the upcoming sections of this paper will elaborate more on this.
As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, more and more governments are repurposing mass surveillance methods and technologies to focus on public health outcomes. To date, the world has 3.2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and mass surveillance technologies have been adopted and repurposed by at least 30 governments [15, 16}. Smartphone location data is the most popular for supporting contact tracing and enforcement of individual quarantines . The properties of these mass surveillance technologies are not a problem and are much needed tools to assist public health workers who are at the front-lines of the pandemic.
Image source: OneZero 2020 .
De-blackbox: Smartphone Location Data
Various options exist for tri-sector actors to develop location tracking applications as part of contact tracing and/or quarantine enforcement in the fight against COVID-19. These are surveillance technologies that could be applied as part of data-driven containment strategies that make use of smartphones. Potential technologies include GPS, Bluetooth, cellular location tracking and QR codes – this section of the paper will de-blackbox GPS and Bluetooth technology, and also highlight the role of Big data. The capabilities of the aforementioned technologies have their own advantages and disadvantages when it comes to the practicalities of contact tracing, quarantine enforcement and privacy concerns involved in smartphone location data [17. For instance, the technical requirements of a contact-tracing app that uses cellular location data or GPS would need to operate at close range in order to accurately determine whether the user’s smartphone has come into close enough contact with the smartphone of an infected person. GPS would only be able to provide accuracy down to the nearest 10 to 20 meters and would be less effective inside buildings .
Cellular location data is known to be even less precise and a QR code-based system would be useful for collecting a user’s data record on places visited. The QR code-based system would be less effective for determining whether or not someone has been in close contact with an infected individual nor for determining adherence to social distancing . The most promising solution is to repurpose Bluetooth technology on a smartphone to operate on a system of individual anonymous codes for contact tracing . For instance, if someone were to test positive for COVID-19 their anonymous code would be sent to other relevant users and those who had been in close proximity to them could be warned .
Image source: A schematic of app-based COVID-19 contact tracing .
The design behind the schematic of app-based COVID-19 contact tracing is based on smartphone functionality and an algorithm from epidemiological principles . The app would keep a temporary record on closeness of events between individuals and send out an instant alert to self-isolate if a recent close contact tested positive for COVID-19 . The algorithmic functionality of the app would be manually overridden in cases where public health workers had additional information to intervene in a particular case. The main push for such an application would be to replace a week’s work of manual contact tracing with instant signal transmission, reduce delays between positive COVID-19 case confirmation and notification of contacts, preserve the anonymity of infected individuals and refine the app to be more informative on high-risk areas to avoid . These repurposed surveillance technologies are promising, however, they operate within a digital tracking ecosystem that excludes individuals without smartphones or bluetooth supported feature phones. Individuals that are often at the bottom of the pyramid, but perhaps the adaptation of surveillance technology to fight COVID-19 would free-up public health resources necessary to address the needs of individuals in under-resourced communities.
GPS AND SMARTPHONE LOCATION TRACKING:
“In places like India with smartphones, there’s an app now for women if they’re in a violent situation, they can press one button. They’ve given their cell-phone number to five trusted friends, and right away their GPS location goes out: “Here I am.” Melinda Gates, Interview with Jessica Grose (2016).
Identifying a person’s current, physical location by obtaining GPS data from their smartphones or other GPS-enabled devices is known as geotracking. GPS is an abbreviation for Global Positioning System: a radio navigation system that has become an indispensable part of modern life and found in cars, machinery and smartphones. GPS is owned by the United States government and overseen by the country’s Air Force . Smartphones have a GPS receiver chip that uses radio waves from at least four satellites to provide location and time information to any software that needs to use it . There are 28 satellites in orbit that are dedicated to geolocation and a phone’s GPS receiver uses data from signals to triangulate a person’s location and time . The satellites have an internal atomic clock that sends time-coded signals on a specific frequency, and the fourth signal in triangulation is used to determine altitude hence a smartphone receives geolocation data on a map with three signals . The smartphone GPS receiver chip requires unobstructed view of multiple satellites in order to gather location and time data from the strongest satellite signals .
Assisted Global Positioning System (AGS) adds cellular location data to assist geolocation from your phone . The phone carrier “pings” cell towers and triangulates location based on the strength of the GPS enabled phone and tower . AGS is useful when individuals want location whilst on the move and when obstructions such as tall buildings block GPS receiver chips from getting location and time data . Countries such as Norway are already experimenting with GPS data for contact tracing in response to the COVID-19 outbreak . GPS capabilities have limitations in terms of difficulty to anonymize, accuracy that is dependent on distance, power requirements due to satellites that run on rechargeable batteries and whether or not there’s an obstructed view . However, from the quote by Melinda Gates, it is evident that GPS technology can be repurposed not only to ensure the safety and security of women in India; the technology can also be repurposed for contact tracing necessary to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Image source: IUNERA 2020 .
BLUETOOTH AND SMARTPHONE LOCATION TRACKING:
Image source: Medium 2019 .
Bluetooth technology can be found in homes, cars and smartphones – it has evolved to be an important part of the Internet-of-Things ecosystem as a low energy connectivity option. Bluetooth is a short-range wireless communications technology which was developed by the Swedish telecommunications company Ericsson . The technology replaced cable connection and enabled electronic devices that are equipped with Bluetooth connectivity, such smartphones, to use radio waves to transmit information between devices and over a short distance . Smartphones are built with a radio frequency transceiver that is already installed. The chip has to be turned on by a user in order to emit Bluetooth radio waves to allow for communication between devices over a short-range network called a piconet . The piconet is a network of Bluetooth connected devices that use a frequency-hopping pattern for transmission or reception of packets between Bluetooth enabled devices . Piconet are automatically established hence Bluetooth enabled devices can “remember” each other if a pairing had been previously occurred.
The design principle behind Bluetooth wireless communication is known as “inquiry” and “inquiry scan,” which means that when the Bluetooth is turned on, the scanning device listens to discover known frequencies for devices that are actively inquiring . After the inquiry is received, Bluetooth pairing occurs when the scanning device sends a response with information needed by the inquiring device . This is the Bluetooth technology that has the potential to enable anonymized location tracking for contact tracing in the fight to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Image source: IUNERA 2020 
The schematic above is of a mobile application concept for a COVID-19 privacy compliant Bluetooth app. The schematic shows how direct Bluetooth data exchange would be strengthened by blockchain technology to allow for a high grade of privacy and to avoid potential corruption to ensure transparency and no single party control . The short-range Bluetooth communications still has its limitations: battery drain may become an issue and devices generally needs to stay within 10 feet to work properly . However, when compared to other options, most countries such as Germany, Singapore, Norway and Indonesia seem to be coming to the conclusion that Bluetooth is their best bet .
The concept of Bluetooth low energy and voluntary contact-tracing network has also been praised by advocates of the General Data Protection Regulation due to the characteristic of a smartphone application that would operate on a system of individual anonymous codes . If someone were to test positive for COVID-19 their anonymous code would be sent to other relevant users, so that those who had been in close proximity to them could be warned . No GPS location data or personal information would be recorded and users would voluntarily opt-in to use the application.The smartphones users who would opt-in and choose to install the COVID-19 app would generate personal keys via Bluetooth. The personal keys would be long strings of letters and numbers unique to each smartphone . The long strings would in turn generate randomized temporary contact numbers and use low-energy Bluetooth to communicate those temporary numbers with each other when nearby . Signal strength could provide a measure of how close the users’ phones are to assess the risk of COVID-19 transmission when people crossed paths .
Image source: BBC Technology 2020 .
The repurposing of mass surveillance technology for contact tracing in the form of GPS or Bluetooth enhanced digital tracking would also provide valuable data to further support disease modeling efforts and predictions about the flow of the COVID-19 pandemic . In Taiwan, big data played a crucial role in limiting the spread of COVID-19. The country’s National Health Command Center integrated its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to create big data for analytics . This allowed the government to use all available data to conduct case identification and real-time alerts based on travel history during clinical visits . The success in Taiwan indicates that big data and outbreak analysis form part of smart prevention capabilities necessary for an integrated coronavirus control strategy. All the data that would be collected from digital tracking could help healthcare systems to create models that predict hotspots and inform decisions on the best preparation and response to the global health crisis.
Mini Case Studies
Image source: The Intercept 2020 , OneZero 2020 [14,15].
SOUTH KOREA: DATA PROTECTION LAWS AND DISASTER RESPONSE
South Korea is a country with expansive data protection laws that are covered under the Personal Information Protect Act (PIPA) . The citizens of the country have the right to be forgotten and can pursue legal recourse if an entity were to collect any information that could be used to identify specific persons. South Korea also developed an information and communications infrastructure needed to fight disaster from geopolitical conflict with its fraught neighbor North Korea. The ICT infrastructure consisted of mass surveillance technologies that could be repurposed to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak. The government and health administration authorities developed mobile applications that tracked the movements of citizens, and the applications had adoption rates of 90% . The Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) also installed drive-through tests, additional CCT camera’s for facial recognition, body sterilizers to spray through commercial areas and venues for thermal scanners to test citizens . South Korea’s response was largely informed by the country’s playbook on response to anti-terrorism drills that involved mass surveillance and distribution of medicines in large scale to the public . The country was able to successfully implement mass surveillance technologies without public outcry because the existing data protection laws such as PIPA quelled suspicion of function creep by the government. South Koreans also have legal recourse if their personal data were to be used surreptitiously or pivoted from health outcomes to commercial outcomes post COVID-19.
ISRAEL: UNPRECEDENTED USE OF SECRETLY GATHERED DATA
Israel authorized the country’s Internal Security Agency: Shin Bet, to collect cellphone metadata to combat the COVID-19 outbreak . The data would be used to retrace the movements of people who had been infected with COVID-19, and to notify those who would need to be placed under quarantine. This was met with opposition because civil society groups in the country hadn’t been informed of a legislative framework that allowed the security agency to amass data, and fears intensified about the targeting of Palestinians. It is reported that Shin Bet has been collecting metadata since 2002 under Israel’s Telecommunications Law and Israeli Security Agency Law . Both laws allowed the agency to gain access to the facilities and databases of cellular networks and for the agency to request for data transfers . In addition to data collection through transfers, Palestinians that work in Israel have been required to download a mobile application that enables Shin Bet to access their cellphones, geolocation information, etc. . Currently, data protection laws for Palestinians do not exist and no safeguards have been installed to determine how Shin Bet uses the data, whether or not the data is deleted, who else has access to the data collected and under what conditions. Furthermore, Palestinians have no choice but to download the digital tracking application because it is tied to their ability to renew their work-permits in Israel due to the closure of the office of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories – the agency that would issue and renew work permits under normal circumstances . The repurposing of mass surveillance technologies for contact tracing in Israel has been viewed with scrutiny because it is an effort led by a security agency rather than a health agency, and there is no legal recourse for Israelis and Palestinians who might want to ensure that their data is not used for other purposes.
Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing
Apple and Google announced a joint effort “to help public health agencies worldwide leverage smartphones to contain the COVID-19 pandemic . This is an unprecedented partnership that would enable the tech giants to combine their assets and to have access to 3.5 billion iOS and Android devices from across the globe . The use of Bluetooth Low Energy technology and an option for users to opt-in has been touted as “Privacy-Preserving Contact Tracing” for COVID-19 and this is a graphic illustration of how the method would work  :
Image source: New Atlas 2020 .
The Apple and Google initiative will work by harnessing short-range Bluetooth signals and follow a privacy-preserving protocol called PACT for private automated contact tracing . PACT is a technical standard/specification developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and recommended by the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention . PACT is open, interoperable and can be deployed to any smartphone and will enable Apple and Google to balance efficacy while maintaining the privacy of users that opt-in . The Apple and Google system will be rolled out in two phases:
- Deployment of an application programming interface (API) released to allow smartphone application developers to start designing contact tracing apps. At this phase, users would have to download an application designed by their local authority.
- A broad iOS and Android system update to integrate the contact tracing tool into each smartphone’s operating system – users can opt in and activate contact tracing through a menu option in phone settings.
Video source: PACT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2020 .
Decentralization is a key aspect of the Apple-Google solution – the match identification process would take place locally on the smartphones of users. The decentralization would allow users to store Bluetooth contact logs in the form of anonymized identifiers on their smartphones for up to 14 days . The contact logs would be compared to the anonymized identifiers of other users pulled from a provider hosted application server based on a history of proximity . The voluntary opt-in option might limit adoption of the Apple-Google solution, however the Bluetooth plan unlike GPS wouldn’t track the physical location of users, and only pick up the signals of nearby phones at 5-minute intervals . Apple and Google hope that others will see benefits of adopting their approach which has user privacy and security baked into the design of the Bluetooth Low Energy technology for contact tracing.
The Need For Stronger Data Protection Laws
The repurposing of mass surveillance technologies to fight COVID-19 has raised new concerns about privacy and the trade-offs between health, community well-being, and individual rights . The adaptation of these methods for contact tracing has reinvigorated public discourse, leading many to ask: Does the benefit of the surveillance outweigh its costs to privacy, speech, and equal opportunity? Countries such as China have a governance model that is notorious for bypassing the need for user consent and a lack of data protection rights for citizens . On the other side, European countries have chosen to operate within the universal human rights framework to protect the rights of citizens through laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) .
Which approach will prevail on privacy, the uses of personal data and algorithmically enhanced decision-making at a time when the COVID-19 virus is quickly spreading across the globe?
Once again, the properties of these mass surveillance technologies are not a problem, as a matter of fact, the technologies offer an opportunity for countries to track and curb the spread of COVID-19 with speed and accuracy not possible during prior pandemics . The European Union has already shown support for the Apple-Google initiative and praised it for its “privacy by design” approach, due to the use of anonymized Bluetooth identifiers, decentralization and a 14-day expiration on the storage of users digital location track records . Countries that require adherence to GDPR, such as Finland, have already introduced measures to ensure that the private sector is aware that data collection at this time should be led by public health experts. Below is an infographic on legislation concerning the processing of health data and employee data .
Image source: NIXU, Cybersecurity 2020 .
The early days of the COVID-19 outbreak were marked by tight censorship of health workers in Wuhan China, and automated content moderation by the local governments to control the narrative about the pandemic. This kind of censorship sparked debate on free speech and information control . The country did not address such issues but rather repurposed its mass surveillance capabilities for contact tracing, which worked to flatten the curve of infection and transmission but failed to balance public health and civil rights [7,8,]. The intrusive data collection methods of governments and mobile data brokers are well documented; and are often carried out on an uninformed and non-consenting populace. There are several examples from around the world on how in times of crisis, emergency powers can outlive emergencies . For instance, another example is the USA Patriot Act – although it was intended to prevent terrorist attacks it was accused of infringing civil liberties. It got repealed through the 2015 Freedom Act and it took 14 years for the U.S government to install restrictions on how surveillance programs could be used . The rest of the world has an opportunity to look at these examples and to implement consent-based surveillance and “privacy-by-design” approaches during this global health crisis. Currently, it is civil society groups and GDPR campaigners who are pushing for a framework that could install safeguards and enforceable rules to limit the use of the collected data to the limited purpose of COVID-19 contact tracing.
Different countries across the world are repurposing mass surveillance technologies in an effort to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. The adoption of anonymized Bluetooth technology for contact tracing and digital surveillance is evidence that the properties of these technologies is not a problem. Privacy-by-design and privacy-preserving contact tracing that is led by public healthcare agencies from across the globe, such as the Korean Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Health Command Center in Taiwan, have led to high adoption rates of mass surveillance technologies repurposed for health outcomes. In contrast, there is intensified public outcry in countries such as China and Israel where the repurposing of mass surveillance technologies in response COVID-19 has been led by security agencies and law enforcement. Furthermore, civil society groups are concerned about function creep and the undermining of civil liberties due to the lack of safeguards to ensure that data collected during COVID-19 is limited to use during the global pandemic. It is without doubt that the world will have a great deal to reflect upon after the COVID-19 global health crisis, and more will be written on the best models for the repurposing of mass surveillance technologies to fight future pandemics.
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