Coronavirus and location: Is there a line?

March 23, 2020  - By

No, I’m not talking about the line at the grocery store to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Or the line at the doctor’s office. I’m talking about that gray privacy line invisible to the naked eye, but all too accessible on our mobile devices.

On March 16, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet approved using citizens’ smartphones to track the locations of people infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as anyone they might have had contact with.

Such a strategy might work — some citizens reported receiving smartphone alerts when they were near an infected person. However, it does raise the ubiquitous privacy concerns of allowing your government to know your every move.

Some may think this an acceptable use of tracking, except that the Israeli Knesset — the citizenry’s representative legislature — was not involved in the decision. The tracking didn’t require a court order, and records were to be kept until the new regulation expired.

A few days later, Israel’s top court put a stop to the program, saying there would be no tracking of Israelis by the Shin Bet without Knesset oversight.

Of course, Israel is a democracy, and Netanyahu’s move is nowhere near the draconian measures undertaken by the Chinese government in response to the virus. Those actions included forcibly removing people from their homes and placing them in quarantine.

Yet China’s actions worked. As of press time, the outbreak there is under control, with no new cases reported on March 19. That’s impressive, if one can trust the state news. After all, this is the same country that warned the doctor who discovered the virus not to talk about it. Dr. Li Wenliang died in February of the disease.

Privacy versus public health: Something to think about while social distancing at home.

Image: Yuuji/E+/Getty Images

Image: Yuuji/E+/Getty Images

About the Author: Tracy Cozzens

Senior Editor Tracy Cozzens joined GPS World magazine in 2006. She also is editor of GPS World’s newsletters and the sister website Geospatial Solutions. She has worked in government, for non-profits, and in corporate communications, editing a variety of publications for audiences ranging from federal government contractors to teachers.