Mar 25, 2020 - Technology

Why the U.S. won't deploy high-tech coronavirus trackers

illustration of a finger swiping on a phone

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Governments around the world have turned to high-tech solutions like smartphone tracking and Bluetooth bracelets to slow the novel coronavirus' spread. For both practical and cultural reasons, however, the U.S. is unlikely to try such methods.

The big picture: The U.S. plainly needs more tools for slowing the spread of COVID-19. But a lack of testing supplies, the absence of nationwide strategies and policies, an individualistic culture, and concerns over civil liberties all stand in the way of adopting these techniques.

Driving the news:

  • In Taiwan, authorities used a mobile phone-based "virtual fence" to enforce a quarantine by tracking the location of people who have been exposed to the virus.
  • In Singapore, authorities have been tracking the spread of the disease by requiring residents to load their phones with a contact-tracing mobile app that they're now making available to developers worldwide.
  • Hong Kong uses bracelets, tied to smartphones via Bluetooth, to try to keep tabs on some in quarantine and foreigners entering the country.
  • In Thailand, tourists from certain countries were given a mobile phone SIM card with a special app to make health declarations and enable tracking.
  • Israel earlier this month approved monitoring the cell phones of those infected with the virus.

Yes, but: Without widespread testing in the U.S., it's not clear who would be tracked or for what purpose.

  • Plus, the U.S. lacks a coordinated national response to the virus, with much of the effort to "flatten the curve" coming at state and local levels.

Civil liberties advocates argue that invasive uses of technology, once introduced for well-meaning ends, are difficult to roll back and could lead to a more permanent erosion of privacy rights in the U.S.

  • "It's essential that government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are based on the recommendations of public health experts — and vetted by civil liberties and human rights experts," said Fight for the Future's Evan Greer, whose group is calling on governments to avoid turning to mass surveillance to fight the disease. "Real-time location data is incredibly sensitive information that can put people in imminent danger if it's leaked, shared improperly, or abused."

Technology can still play a role in U.S. efforts against the virus.

  • Mobile operators in Italy, Germany, and Austria are sharing anonymous aggregated data with health authorities. Facebook has also said it would share some data with researchers, and that could be more palatable in the U.S. than individual tracking. But again, without widespread testing, such data is probably less useful.
  • A consortium of tech companies, national labs and universities are tapping supercomputers to help identify drugs that could be useful in treating COVID-19.
  • In the absence of extensive testing data, companies are also trying to use other types of info. Smart thermometer maker Kinsa has been sharing maps of people's temperatures, while other groups are trying to analyze the limited virus data to see who might be most vulnerable.
  • 3D printing can contribute to providing scarce medical supplies and ventilator parts, with HP and Carbon among those trying to fill the void, along with grassroots efforts.
  • And of course, as we reported yesterday, the internet has proven a vital lifeline for the millions of people who are staying at home in an effort to slow the disease's spread.

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