By ADRIAN GROPPER, MD
Until scientists discover a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, our economy and our privacy will be at the mercy of imperfect technology used to manage the pandemic response.
Contact tracing, symptom capture and immunity assessment are essential tools for pandemic response, which can benefit from appropriate technology. However, the effectiveness of these tools is constrained by the privacy concerns inherent in mass surveillance. Lack of trust diminishes voluntary participation. Coerced surveillance can lead to hiding and to the injection of false information.
But it’s not a zero-sum game. The introduction of local community organizations as trusted intermediaries can improve participation, promote trust, and reduce the privacy impact of health and social surveillance.
Balancing Surveillance with Privacy
Privacy technology can complement surveillance technology when it drives adoption through trust borne of transparency and meaningful choice.
We can try to understand privacy technology from the perspective of decentralization. Decentralization keeps all personally identifiable information under the user’s control, therefore offering total transparency over its use and total choice over how it is used.
Ideally, managing contact tracing, testing, test interpretation, symptom reporting, health records, relationships, and location history should be decentralized. This information should be entirely under the control of the individual, and contribute only aggregated learning to the collective — using differential privacy, homomorphic encryption, and split learning.
While these technologies are still too immature and expensive to be useful for the present pandemic, current technology does not force a binary choice between absolute decentralization and coerced government surveillance. Partial decentralization of technology and technology policy at the level of a cooperative, community, or town can leverage the trust many have in their local relationships and the peace of mind that comes from the ability to choose what information to share with whom.
Focus on the Community
Technology for contact tracing and immunity monitoring requires widespread adoption to be effective. But this adoption, like