It’s been a sobering week here in New York City. The streets are silent except for the sounds of ambulances racing by. Pedestrians steer clear of each other—and many are wearing masks. New York has far more cases of the coronavirus than any other state in the nation.
It reminds me of the horrible days after 9/11, when New York City was shut off from the world, the streets were quiet, and the smell of smoke lingered everywhere. And just like after 9/11, governments around the world are turning toward technological surveillance as a silver bullet to solve their problems.
In today’s crisis, the focus is on using cellphone data—an unprecedented window into people’s movements—for disease surveillance.
Journalists around the world have been reporting on these efforts: Israel has authorized its security agency to tap into a trove of cellphone data
to monitor people with the coronavirus. In Lombardy, Italy, the government is using cellphone data
to keep track of whether people are disobeying the lockdown. China is requiring citizens to use an app that gives them a score—of red, yellow, or green
—indicating whether they can move freely or must stay in quarantine. Singapore built an app that alerts users
when they come into contact with an infected person.
The hope that we can use technology to stop the spread of the coronavirus is understandable. But before racing headlong into massive surveillance, it’s worth pausing to remember what we have learned in the decades since we built the post 9/11 surveillance infrastructure: It’s very invasive, and it doesn’t necessarily work.
And the data the governments want to use—cellphone location—is particularly susceptible to deanonymization. In 2013, researchers in Europe studied location data from 1.5 million people and found that it was so specific to individual habits that they could identify 95 percent of the people with only four location points
The truth is that we don’t know how useful cellphone records will be for disease surveillance. (Tufts University computer science professor Susan Landau has a nice write-up in Lawfare on the technical limitations of cellphone surveillance
But currently the U.S. is not broadly testing and isolating those who are infected. Testing rates depend on where people live. We filed public records requests for the testing algorithms
in use in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. So far, we’ve received documents from 12 jurisdictions, which we are making public here
. Seven are responses to our requests; the others were shared with us by readers—thank you!
Already, we have seen differences in the guidelines. In New York City
, testing is only recommended for hospitalized patients. In Massachusetts
, testing is offered to more groups, including people who have been exposed to someone with the virus.
We will keep you updated on the results of our public records requests. In the meantime, please stay safe and healthy!