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$2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package includes $500M for ‘surveillance and data collection system’

Pandemic Detection (Gerd Altmann/Pixabay)
April 01, 2020

The $2 trillion emergency stimulus package President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday aimed at limiting the spread of the deadly coronavirus and combating the economic damage it has caused includes $500 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create a “surveillance and data collection system.”

The money set aside would be used for public health data surveillance and modernizing the analytics infrastructure, Business Insider reported. Within the next 30 days, the CDC must report on the development of the surveillance and data collection system.

It’s not clear what form that surveillance system will take, but its believed that many of the advanced technologies that the government could use would have to navigate tricky privacy laws such as HIPPA, which prevents the sharing of people’s health information between hospitals, the government, and third parties.

The federal government has previously expressed interest in using individual’s smartphones to monitor movement patterns. An advanced surveillance system could help the United States speed up testing for the people who are the most at risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

Other countries have made similar moves. In China, residents were required to download an application on their phones to self-report their contact with the coronavirus. That data are used to automatically quarantine those individuals who have been near people with COVID-19 symptoms or have it themselves.

In another instance of using technology to combat the spread of the virus, Italy has consulted a tech firm that collects social media users’ data to determine if they are abiding by the self-quarantine policies put in place.

Based on social media activity, more than 33,000 residents failed to abide by the quarantine rule. The social media monitoring company Ghost Data gathered data from social media posts. It partnered with LogoGrab, which specializes in facial recognition, to identify residents who aren’t abiding by the quarantine.

Andrea Stroppa, Ghost Data’s founder, said he doesn’t believe his company, which operates in Italy and the United States, is violating social media users’ privacy. The company collected data on more than 500,000 Instagram users to determine where they were and when. However, he explained that that information was anonymized.

“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.”

A LogoGrab spokeswoman also said 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.”

Singapore issued an app that uses Bluetooth to monitor users’ locations to warn them if they have gotten too close to people who have been exposed to the virus and asks them to get tested.