February 4, 2020: I thought it a good time to bring up this topic, though we all hope the current Novel Coronavirus outbreak will dissipate before the issues below become of immediate importance.

My physician wife brought up the challenge health officials have when an individual is suspected of having had a higher than average likelihood of contracting the novel coronavirus. When public health officials think the chance of infection is sufficiently low, they release the individual, perhaps only with advice.  As I understand it, current US recommendations require that the person have known contact with an individual confirmed to have coronavirus to be considered at risk for infection, and, perhaps, have recently traveled to China. No doubt, officials are balancing the likelihood of spreading the disease, providing health care, restraining individual freedom, overloading the healthcare system, and not overburdening the economy. However, this may place contact tracing several steps (and days to weeks) behind actual exposure.

Indeed, location tracking at the individual level could help encourage and remind individuals to conform to official advice.  Possibly, health officials might ask potential patients to voluntarily use their location history to help them or even opt-in to monitoring.  Beyond that, if health officials were to have access to all cell phones, they could infer proximity across all phone-carrying individuals and construct rather accurate graphs.  The resulting data would indicate how disease spreads and enable more effective control of that spread. But we also know this approach would be of very great concern, particularly in the great democracies with their tradition of freedom of assembly and strong privacy privacy protection.  Thus, to even contemplate such an approach, we would have to find ways to gather this data in a way so only legitimate queries could be conducted. It’s worth noting that even a fully centralized approach might never be complete since there are individuals who do not carry phones and some might deliberately resist compliance — even through use of burner phones.

There are certainly privacy-sensitive algorithms that could be applied by computer scientists to reduce the privacy implications of this; and just as certainly such threats could not be completely eliminated.  For example, there is no reason to actually report on location history: it’s really the contact network of the potentially infected individual that is of interest, though this too has serious privacy implications. Geofencing could be used to exclude data from certain regions that could be particularly sensitive.  No activities where an individual was not in contact with others would need to be divulged.

The current outbreak is a good chance to remind ourselves we should be doing more research into technologies to support health officials in times of disease outbreak.  Technology, through increased mobility, may have made disease dissemination more likely, but it could also mitigate some of the risks that travel creates. This thought experiment also illustrates the opportunities and perils of the use of location data in a public health emergency, a policy topic around which we as society should develop a shared consensus.