Be careful with high-tech contact tracing

A lot of people are mulling high-tech contact tracing measures and viewing it as the panacea for the current #COVID19 pandemic. However, I would not be too comfortable with the idea; here are a few reasons:

1) It creates a huge privacy problem. By definition, the regulating entity of such a system would know the identity, medical history, as well as the location trace of everyone. Such a measure essentially destroys ALL protections the HIPAA etc. regulations on patient privacy. Such information can be used for unrelated investigation, targeted advertisement, or discrimination against individuals based on their identity and medical history.

2) It creates a huge information security risk. Chances are, such software WILL have bugs and loopholes. One example is Weilinli, one Wuhan-based community platform. This platform was used for publishing local information such as patient information within the community etc; However, a lack of security measures has caused practically anyone could enter the system with fake GPS software. A system with such central information will likely be a very attractive target for nation-states as well as other groups. And the leak of such information would create a problem as large as the Equifax fiasco.

3) It can have discriminatory effects on minority and vulnerable groups. Sexual workers, undocumented immigrants, etc. might be put on risk if such tracing measures were enforced. Lower-income groups and homeless etc. might struggle to gain access to such a tracking device (a cellphone presumably).

4) It can strengthen the monopoly of a few technological superpowers. Only a few huge big-tech corporations have the resources to put up such a system, and such a contact-tracing measure would require EVERYTHING to be connected to such a platform. So if a small shop does not have a Visa-based payment system, or a customer does use an iOS/Android cellphone, they might not be able to perform day-to-day operations anymore. This already happened in China: it is very hard to go out if you don’t have Alipay, a PRIVATE payment software by Alibaba installed. Such a system will become a government-enforced order of using the platforms of a few big tech companies.

5) Therefore, while such a system might be efficient on paper, it might create repercussions for the reasons listed above, and in-turn limits the usefulness of such measure. Someone might very well be afraid of the privacy issue of such a system and decided to have a separate phone solely for meeting the requirements of the point of entry and ditch the device otherwise.

One final thought – One core argument of authoritarian governments for their tyrannies is a false choice between freedom and safety: “Look, the democratic countries could not keep their people safe!” In such a difficult time, it might be easy to go down the route of being as draconian as possible because that might be the easy way out. But we do need to realize there are prices and trade-offs for every policy, and there are values as fundamental as life itself that we do not want to forfeit. We should trust democracy, and believe the will and power of people to cooperate. We all need to sacrifice, but some trade-offs need to be carefully evaluated.