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Here’s how governments could use social media posts to enforce coronavirus quarantine

Iphone Displaying Social Media Application (Pexels/Released)
March 29, 2020

The Italian government consulted a tech firm that has scanned hundreds of thousands of social media posts to assess whether its citizens were abiding by the country’s total lockdown.

Based on the social media activity, Italy determined more than 33,000 residents failed to abide by the quarantine rule amid the deadly coronavirus spread, CNET reported. Italy has the second-highest overall cases and the most deaths of any other country in the world, according to the latest tracking data from Johns Hopkins research.

The social media monitoring company Ghost Data gathered data from social media posts and has partnered with LogoGrab to identify residents who aren’t abiding by the quarantine. LogoGrab is a recognition company that can automatically identify people and places.

Ghost Data’s founder, Andrea Stroppa, doesn’t believe his company, which operates in Italy and the United States, is violating social media users’ privacy.

“In our view, privacy is very important. It’s a fundamental human right,” Stroppa said. “However, it’s important to give our support to help the government and the authorities. Hundreds of people are dying every day.”

Ghost Data shared more than 500,000 Instagram posts in March that targeted regions in Italy where residents were supposed to be on lockdown with LogoGrab, which used its technology to identify the residents in the pictures on Instagram. At least 33,120 people violated Italy’s quarantine orders, according to their research.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said it is looking into Ghost Data’s information practices.

“Scraping people’s data violates our policies and we are investigating,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement to CNET. “Facebook has a number of initiatives to help combat the spread of the disease in privacy-protective ways.”

All of Italy went on lockdown March 10 as the death toll in the country skyrocketed in just a few days. In a translated post on Twitter, Stroppa offered his services to government agencies across the world which might need assistance enforcing similar lockdown procedures.

“We as computer researchers @GhostData_io together with our partner @Logograb we have software READY to understand in the various regions / cities where the lockdown is NOT being respected. We have made it available to all institutions right away,” he wrote.

Ghost Data’s practices would not offer up the names of the residents and where they were when they violated quarantine rules, Stroppa said, as he claimed that the data has been anonymized.

“What we want to do is not to give the names of people or the streets where police should be, but give trends that we’ve seen,” Stroppa said. “The policymakers can use this information to change their lockdown rules.”

A LogoGrab spokeswoman also added that there are certain instances where public health trumps privacy rights.

“There are circumstances, such as tracking down infected individuals, that do override individual privacy rights, for the common good, such as public health,” the spokeswoman said. “But those actions should only ever be sanctioned and carried out by official government agencies.”