The cyberpunk dystopia we feared is here, and just in the nick of time

Some COVID-19 surveillance might actually be workable...

The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic has raised a thorny question for technologists and lawmakers: how might the location data from our cellphones be used to help contain the spread of the virus?

Two broad use cases have emerged: the first is using location data to monitor compliance with quarantine. And the second is contact tracing - using location data to track down people that have come into contact with a person that tests positive to the virus.

The team at Risky Biz discussed both in a livestream this week with regular co-host and Insomnia Security founder Adam Boileau, adjunct professor at Stanford University’s Center for International Security Alex Stamos, and Crowdstrike founder and former CTO Dmitri Alperovitch.

Watch the recent Risky Business livestream on COVID-19 surveillance:

Monitoring quarantine compliance

In an ideal world, people that have tested positive to a deadly and contagious disease would dutifully self-isolate to prevent further infection, and those that they’ve recently come in contact with would dutifully quarantine before their test results come in.

In some countries, there are few limits on the coercive power of the state to compel people to follow these measures, or very few limits on the tracking of civilian movements.

In Western democracies, the use of monitoring for such a purpose requires legislative change and a dramatic suspension of social norms.

In the United States, governments do not have the legal authority to tap cell phone records or social media data for the purpose of enforcing quarantine compliance. The United States is struggling to even make the case for using geofencing data to convict a suspect with a bank robbery.

Emergency powers are gradually being put into place as clusters of infections emerge. Airlines, for example, are now required under US law to submit data to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data about all incoming passengers for the purpose of enforcing quarantine. And the White House is now in discussion with US tech giants such as Facebook and Google about how their location data might also be put to use.

Today, anonymised data from mobile networks and apps is already made available to researchers for the purpose of tracking the spread of disease. Users of IoT thermometers, for example, can already opt-in to share their data for use in the aggregate.

But the prospect of using the data at the individual level for purposes that could be deemed punitive is ethically and legally complex.

Albert Gidari, Director of Privacy at the Center for Internet & Society at Stanford Law School notes that the US Stored Communication Act would not permit compelled disclosure. “Any system devised to take advantage of location history would have to be consent-based and rely on voluntary cooperation of providers,” he told Risky.Biz.

Compelled disclosure might also prove ineffective. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that the threat of having your movements monitored could create a perverse disincentive: people that feel unwell - but not so unwell to present for testing - may choose to avoid being tested to avoid it. And if such a system offered no agency or benefit to those being monitored, what is to stop them from simply leaving their mobile device at home?

“We can’t expect that people who choose to be non-compliant are going to use an app voluntarily,” Boileau notes. “So at that point, [authorities] are left with using the phone infrastructure - or other companies that have location data. In New Zealand, for example, the telcos have the data for emergency call location - and in an emergency, a whole bunch of the usual rules don’t apply.”

There are potential benefits for users - measuring compliance with quarantine would be an important input into determining “how long we should be in lockdown”, he said. In other words - put up with surveillance now, and lives can return to normal much sooner.

But that’s a very difficult sell - what’s acceptable to a person in New Zealand or Scandinavia might not fly in Germany or the United States.

Contact Tracing

Using mobile location data for contact tracing presents many of the same legal and ethical challenges as monitoring compliance with quarantine. But it offers far more palatable use cases for countries seeking to balance containment of the disease with preserving civil rights in the longer term.

Gidari posits the concept of a system whereby individuals that test positive may voluntarily disclose their mobile phone number or online account identifier to healthcare agencies. The government could then use existing lawful arrangements with tech companies to request rapid emergency access to the user’s location history.

The agency could also request aggregate geofencing data to have the provider alert other users who were in close proximity to the person during their illness. If protected by privacy-preserving caveats - such as limiting which agency can access the data and how long they can retain or use the data - it might be something privacy advocates can live with.

“We don’t need a Korea-style approach to this problem to get actionable data in the hands of the CDC or other health care providers,” Gidari said. “We can protect privacy too.”

Stamos - who has previously been an expert witness on cases that involve location-based data - isn’t confident that cell tower data is precise enough for contact tracing without generating an unacceptable number of false positives. But data from Bluetooth beacons and WiFi SSIDs might do.

The government of Singapore used Bluetooth as part of their efforts to contain the virus. Citizens were encouraged to voluntarily download the ‘TraceTogether’ app, provide the Ministry of Health their mobile phone number and turn Bluetooth on permanently. The app asks for user consent to log any other user of the app that spends more than 30 minutes within 2m of the person. The data is then acted upon if any of the users return a positive test.

Over 600,000 Singaporeans have already volunteered to download the app, perhaps motivated by the sense of national solidarity pervasive in Singapore, or perhaps by the assumption that using a government-issued app will fast-track access to testing when it becomes necessary.

In any case, the app has its limitations. The iOS app has to run permanently in the foreground to be effective, and the Android version must be manually configured to run in the background. Users are unlikely to be so diligent that they remember to turn it on every time they are in a public place - well in advance of getting sick - limiting the use case to people already on high alert, such as those that came into contact with a person waiting for test results. Developers may improve TraceTogether now that Singapore plans to release the app’s source code.

Other efforts to convince users to voluntarily download a privacy-preserving app - such as Cambridge University’s ‘FluPhone’ app in 2011 and MIT’s new ‘PrivateKit’ app - haven’t driven enough user interest to make a meaningful impact.

Stamos sees a faster way to enrol users in a privacy-preserving system. Any time Google or Facebook offer features like ‘People You May Know’, he notes, they are effectively already performing a similar feature to contact tracing. And both of those platforms have in excess of 2.5 billion users.

“Contact tracing is a technique already proven in the field by Google and Facebook,” Stamos said. “This is why sometimes when you go into a store, you end up getting related ads in your feed - because Bluetooth beacons placed in the store have recorded your interest for future advertising.”

He envisions a system under which any Facebook or Android user that tests positive to Coronavirus could - at the push of a button in an app they are familiar with - give permission for Facebook or Google to contact any other account holders that have been in the same Bluetooth Beacon or WiFi network (SSID) for more than 30 minutes.

Stamos recommends the tech giants get on the front foot and build this capability voluntarily for US users, lest they be compelled by governments to build a compromised solution.

“If I tested positive, I’d much prefer to hit a button and have Google and Facebook inform everyone that I’ve been in contact with, warning them to go get tested,” he said. “And that data doesn’t necessarily have to go to the government. It could be a relationship between me and counterparties, mediated by an app we use in common.”

As long as the app is opt-in, that consent is provided, and that the app brokers the tracing and notification (rather than the user or other human operator), it could be rolled out in the United States without the need for legislative change, he said.

“All the infrastructure is there to do it,” he said. “It would use the same [geofencing] mechanisms these companies use today, which we know to be legal.”

The same wouldn’t apply for Europe, where GDPR and other regulations would likely prove too prohibitive.

Even the most diehard privacy advocates say they would be willing to make a compromise in such an emergency.

But contact tracing apps will only help, Alperovich notes, if there is enough testing capacity available to help the population know if they are infected or have been in contact with somebody infected. That’s not available in the US today.

“It won’t do anything to trace people if we can’t actually test them,” he said. “But maybe when we get to the point of re-opening this country, and we want to make sure we don’t have new outbreaks, it’s something to consider.”

Speaking as a person that has opted out of platforms that track his location data, he remains cautious.

“I would want full transparency,” he said. “I’d want the source code of the app published by the government. I’d want strict oversight on how the data is used and I’d want mandatory purging of that data every so many days.”

“If it can be effective, and if the user volunteers to submit data on social networks they already use, then with the right safeguards - I’m a tentative yes.”

Even Boileau, who often quips that commercial surveillance is the “cyberpunk dystopia” we always dreaded, is in reluctant agreement.

“The voluntary approach has some real benefits,” he said. “It’s an emergency. We’ve got the data and we should use it. Privacy can just suck it for a while.”

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