But it’s urgent that we find a way to strike a balance when it comes to using digital technologies to manage this threat to our health and economy. The United States is moving toward an inflection point in the pandemic where we need a realistic road map for getting America back on its feet without sparking a second surge in infections. The data generated by mobile phones can play an incredibly valuable role by providing insights that can allow public health and economic imperatives to work in sync, rather than in opposition to one another.
Here are a few ways we can take advantage of digital technologies while balancing public health imperatives with privacy concerns.
For example, the system could be used to solicit anonymous answers to a few simple questions, like, “Have you experienced a fever and cough in the last five days?” or, “Are you wearing a mask and practicing social distancing?” This would augment data culled from fragmented and sometimes inconsistent state and local data to glean insights into potential hotspots worth investigating or to understand if mitigation policies are being followed. It can also help improve current disease models where a lack of data is producing sharply different predictions that have enormous health and economic implications.
For example, in addition to removing personal data, the geolocation can be blurred to prevent law enforcement agencies from using this data to crack down on a party or church service.
Offer benefits for data sharing
There is the quandary of how to spur widespread adoption of a contact tracing app like the one Google and Apple are building before folks become infected, and even more importantly, once someone tests positive for coronavirus.
One approach is to offer incentives — like access to testing and virtual check-ins with health care professionals. Big providers like Kaiser Permanente, Blue Cross Blue Shield and even Medicare could offer service benefits to app users. App activation and data-sharing could be presented via an “opt-out” approach: People would be clearly informed that they will be part of a national COVID-19 mitigation system and they will have an easy way of opting out. Studies suggest higher inclusion rates when participation is seen as the norm, not the exception.
Meanwhile, an additional safeguard could involve establishing a special government-appointed, bipartisan oversight body, with legal, ethical and civil society representation tasked with monitoring privacy standards and moving swiftly to address any issues that arise.
Ultimately, we would be foolish to completely reject the powerful insights digital tools can provide, especially as we develop strategies to reopen the economy. When fighting a disease with a 14-day silent incubation period and transmission before the onset of symptoms, we need the best data — especially at the local level — long before an outbreak is well underway. Identifying those who may have been exposed and urging them to quarantine before they spread the disease to others, can stop the virus in its tracks.