Click to learn more about author Bernard Brode.
With news of the first dose of a vaccine successfully administered, it appears that we might finally be seeing the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it’s also clear that the impact of the virus — and the ways we have responded to it — will last for many years. Long after the health and economic effects have faded.
Those of us who work in technology have been aware of this for some time, of course. Back at the beginning of the pandemic, we were warning that the security of medical devices might become a very real problem this year. Similarly, we warned that the use of big data to fight the pandemic ran the risk of setting a problematic precedent when it came to the right to personal privacy.
We are now living with the consequences of that decision. Traveling today means greater privacy intrusion than ever before, and we have the pandemic to blame for that. In this article, we’ll look at how we ended up in this position and how we can avoid this becoming the new normal.
Beating the Virus with Big Data
Most of the mainstream analyses of the way that technology has been leveraged to fight the COVID-19 virus have focused on the expansion of data acquisition systems. This was the focus, for instance, of an April article in the New York Times, which set the tone for most of the reporting on the apparent tension between personal privacy and public health surveillance.
That article noted that many countries around the world — from Italy to Israel — have begun to harvest geolocation data from their citizens’ smartphones in order to track their movements. This move was certainly unprecedented and represented a radical expansion of a nation state’s ability to keep track of citizens. In terms of fighting the pandemic, however, it was less than useful.
To understand why, it’s instructive to reflect on this article in HealthITAnalytics, also from April 2020. The interview is with James Hendler, the Tetherless World Professor of Computer, Web, and Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA). He told the magazine that fighting the virus was not merely a question of being able to collect data; rather, the bottleneck was in being able to manipulate and analyze it in a way that would produce actionable insights.
In other words, Hendler pointed out, fighting the virus is “a big data problem,” and one where “artificial intelligence can play a big role.” And with more than 4.5 billion people already online by the end of 2020, our ability to process and secure these data lags significantly behind our ability to collect it.
This central insight — that analyzing the data produced by large-scale surveillance networks required the deployment of big data tools — is likely to have a remarkable impact on the way that we travel in the next few years.
The biggest impact, for most of us, will be an expansion of the kind of “intelligent” systems that are used to make personalized recommendations for products and services to buy. Several of the companies who run such engines were keen to offer their expertise to public health researchers early in the pandemic. Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and others have all offered researchers free access to open datasets and analytics tools to help them develop COVID-19 solutions faster.
Many travelers — indeed, many citizens — should be worried about that. As we noted early this year, asking whether big data can save us from the virus was never really the issue — it was clear that this kind of analysis would be of great utility from a public health perspective. The problem was what would happen to this data after the pandemic and what kind of precedent this surveillance would set.
In other words, most people were happy to have their movements tracked in order to beat the virus, but will governments ever stop tracking us? Or will they merely sell this information to advertising companies?
The New Normal?
Consumers are, of course, aware of these issues. Every time there is an expansion in the surveillance infrastructure used by the state and by advertisers, we see a simultaneous rise in search interest related to online privacy tools intended to prevent this kind of tracking.
However, consumers can only go so far when it comes to protecting themselves and their privacy. Ultimately, in order to prevent our every flight, drive, and even walk from being tracked, we will need to build a legal framework that matches the sophistication of the networks used to collect this information.
There are promising signs that this is happening. STAT’s Casey Ross recently wrote about a number of initiatives that seek to put an inherent limit on governmental ability to share location data outside of specific circumstances — such as a global pandemic.
However, most analysts also agree that there is a glaring inconsistency when it comes to arguments that try to limit governments’ abilities to track their citizens. This is that many citizens who claim to worry about the privacy implications of this are happy to share their location data with private companies who operate under far less stringent protocols and legislation.
As Jack Dunn recently put it on the IAPP website, how can we reasonably evaluate the costs and benefits of Google or Facebook sharing location data with the federal government when it has been perfectly legal for Walgreens to share access to customer data with pharmaceutical advertisers? How does aggregating and anonymizing data safeguard privacy when a user’s personal data can be revealed through other data points?
This, unfortunately, is the reality of traveling today — that, even if the government is not tracking your movements, there are plenty of apps on your phone that probably are. Thus, as it did in many other ways, the pandemic has done more to exacerbate existing issues with the way we approach technology rather than representing a totally unprecedented event.
Not that this makes moving forward after the pandemic any easier, of course. But we should recognize that the issues with big data, and with data acquisition more generally, go much deeper than just the past year.