We need mass surveillance to fight COVID-19—but it doesn’t have to be creepy

news
14/04/2020

This is a chance to reinvent the way we collect and share personal data while protecting individual privacy.

I stop the car when I see him walking slowly down the empty footpath outside our now shuttered building—I know he lives on campus and is far from home. I sent my students away more than a week ago; I think of them as diasporic now, not necessarily remote, but it is still a shock to see him. We talk about his studies, and his fiancée in San Francisco, and how strange this moment in which we find ourselves is—we are at the edges of what language can describe. After one last check-in and the promise to call me if I can help, he says in an awkward voice, “You know I will have to report this.”

The Australian National University (ANU), at which I work, is moving quickly in response to COVID-19. Our classes have gone online, and we have sent our staff home; we are all navigating a new world of digital intermediation and distance. For the students who remain in the residence halls, locked in a country that has closed its borders and to which airlines no longer fly, it is an ever-changing situation. Keeping them safe is a big priority; there is social distancing, and increased cleaning and temporal staggering of access to services. There are rules and prescriptions and the looming reality of daily temperature checks. And apparently there is a contact log in which I will now feature, and which could be turned over to the local health services at a later point.

The rigorous use of contact tracing, across digital and physical realms, has been credited with helping limit the spread of COVID-19 in a number of places, notably Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as Kerala, India. As a methodology, it has a long history of use against diseases from SARS and AIDS to typhoid and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. In its current instantiations—such as the mobile-phone app that South Koreans exposed to the virus must download so they can be monitored during self-quarantine—it has raised new concerns about surveillance and privacy, and about the trade-offs between health, community well-being, and individual rights. Even here at the ANU, we are trying to find a way to balance it all.

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