Across the globe, governments are harnessing surveillance-camera footage, mobile location data, and consumer purchase records to help track the recent movements of coronavirus patients, monitor those potentially exposed, and establish virus transmission chains. In China, for example, the government has installed surveillance cameras outside and inside quarantined individuals’ homes. A few thousand miles away, Israel’s internal security agency is primed to mine a cache of mobile phone location data, initially collected for counterterrorism operations, in order to pinpoint possible COVID-19 exposure among its citizens.
Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, surveillance technology has slowly crept its way into our daily lives. The best example of this subtle crossover is facial recognition, which now functions as a “convenience” feature, offering hands-free access to our mobile devices. Bluetooth trackers, long used by stores to measure and track crowd sizes, are being repurposed to enable contact tracing while maintaining some semblance of user privacy. As we have previously written, contact tracing works by identifying everyone a sick person may have potentially exposed, with the goal of identifying newly infected individuals before they become infectious to others. Even non-personally identifiable location data can provide a wealth of information to those collecting it, such as your age, profession, income level, and connections.