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Privacy should not be a victim of the coronavirus pandemic

Geolocation data may be an important tool to fight COVID-19, but concerns about individual rights grow as governments and firms deploy it

Governments of several countries have now access to data from cell phone carriers to identify clusters of people and thus reinforce measures of social distance to combat the pandemic of COVID-19. The measure, on the one hand, is defended as a way to contain the advancement of the new coronavirus. Experts, however, warn that this type of surveillance cannot lead to a violation of the right to privacy.

A group of Brazilian telecom firms – Claro, Oi, TIM, and Vivo – would make a database available to the Ministry of Science, based on information from their transmission towers, which can identify users’ movement. The project, however, was vetoed by President Jair Bolsonaro.

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The region

Other countries in Latin America where the authorities have been adopting geolocation measures are Ecuador and Peru. In them, however, there is monitoring not of possible points of agglomeration, but of the movement of suspicious cases, which causes greater concerns in matters of privacy.

In Brazil, the cooperation of carriers with state and municipal governments remains. And there are also initiatives from both technology giants, such as Google, Apple and Facebook, and startups, such as InLoco, which develops security and marketing solutions by geolocation and created a map of social isolation in the country.

In these projects, companies promise to use the data in an aggregated manner. In other words, governments would not have access to individualized information, but only bundles to indicate major trends.

Carefree Mexicans and Brazilians

From data collected and made public by Google, it is possible to know, for example, that among six Latin American countries, Brazil and Mexico, the biggest countries, had the lowest average reduction in the movement of people, of 38% and 33%, respectively, between April 3 and 5, as a report by Valor Econômico shows.

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China, United States, Italy and Singapore are some examples of countries that have already implemented this type of platform. The vast majority of systems use geolocation data produced by smartphones to determine adherence to social isolation and to predict where the disease may go. In some places, the information is also cross-referenced with health, credit, social media and even cameras from the transport system.

It is necessary to understand why these projects are necessary, how the data will be collected and what the current guarantees are.

Veridiana Alimonti, public policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights organization, in an interview to O Estado de S. Paulo.

Invasive measures

The Chinese government adopted a series of tools, based on GPS, cell phone antennas, applications and QR Codes, among others, to identify the location of someone infected days before confirmation of the diagnosis. The measure also serves to prohibit people from entering buildings or public transport or identifying whether someone in quarantine has violated the imposed isolation measure.

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In an interview to BBC News Brasil, the chairman of the National Union of Telephony and Personal Mobile Service Companies (SIndiTelebrasil), Marcos Ferrari, says that sharing data in this way would be illegal. “From the point of view of the legislation (in force in Brazil), the solution with anonymized and aggregated data is the most we can do. But the way this progresses depends on each country. We are limited only to this statistical data.”

Ronaldo Lemos, a lawyer specializing in technology and media issues, posted a thread on Twitter about the topic. For him, Companies that share location data must follow local laws and anonymity must be well done, that is, data cannot be re-identified. “By law, anonymous data is one that cannot be identified, considering the use of reasonable and available technical means at the time of its treatment”, he concludes.

Where are the red flags?

In short, as countries around the world race to contain the pandemic, many are deploying digital surveillance. Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale.

An article published by The Verge lays bare the controversy surrounding the theme. “In a sense, contact tracing is surveillance. Public health work is full of medical surveillance, simply because it’s the only way to find infected people who aren’t sick enough to go to a doctor. The hope is that, given the catastrophic damage already done by the pandemic, people will be willing to accept this level of surveillance as a temporary measure to stem further spread of the virus”, it reads.

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“We need to have a framework that would allow companies and public authorities to cooperate, to enable proper response for the public good,” said Mila Romanoff, data and governance lead for United Nations Global Pulse, a U.N. program that has studied using data to improve emergency responses, to the New York Times. To reduce the risk that coronavirus surveillance efforts might violate people’s privacy, she said, governments and companies should limit the collection and use of data to only what is needed. “The challenge is,” she added, “how much data is enough?”