Felix Stalder on Wed, 18 Mar 2020 10:34:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Should use mobile phone data to monitor public health efforts?

Here in Austria, and in many other places as well, restrictions on
personal mobility are quite severe. At the moment, we are told to
stay at home, with exceptions only for a) going to work (where remote
work is not possible), b) shopping for necessities (food, medicines,
cigarettes, mobile phones) c) helping others do b) and going for walks
(alone or with people with whom one shares the apartment).

A1, the largest mobile phone carrier, is providing data to public
authorities in an effort to monitor these restrictions (contact
tracing might come later). This is quite unprecedented and most people
who care about data privacy are rather uneasy about it, for very
obvious reasons.

But I think we need to think beyond the classic surveillance / privacy
dichotomy, because, clearly, social network analysis is what you
want to do in order to trace the spread of a virus and fine-tune
mechanism for social distancing. The traditional methods of calling up
all people an infected person remembers having had contact over the
preceding week is not very effective and doesn't scale.

So, is there a possibility to use this data without it turning it into
an authoritarian power grab? I think there is, under the following

- Data needs to be deleted after immediate purpose of the analysis has
been achieved.

- The analysis needs to be restricted to questions developed by
an external team. So, no fishing simple because the data is now
available. Mission creep very often a problem.

- Questions, methods and results of the analysis need to be published
after the fact. This will allow public appraisal of the legitimacy of
the program.

- Data needs to be made available to at least two teams that are
completely independent from one another. This will allow for the
cross-examination of the quality of the different approaches.

If we manage to develop such a framework, which both acknowledges the
public health crises AND the democratic character of our societies,
then we might have created something that will be very useful for
other big data question that will inevitably come up in the future.

Is it likely that we manage to enact these? No. But simply calling for
the protection of personal privacy, or accepting the general state of
emergency, will be even worse.

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