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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 became a pandemic because too many of the countries struck by the virus failed to detect and suppress outbreaks as fast as possible. But the coronavirus could usher in an era of intense health surveillance.

Why it matters: From location-detecting smartphones to facial recognition cameras, we have the potential to track the spread of disease in near real-time. But the public health benefits will need to be weighed against the loss of privacy.

Background: Epidemiologists can lay claim to being some of the first data scientists, going all the way back to John Snow discovering the source of a cholera epidemic in London in 1854. Today they use rapid contact tracing to track an outbreak from its source to its spread in an effort to contain it.

  • But contact tracing is laborious detective work, requiring doctors to locate suspected patients and reconstruct their movements and contacts going back days.
  • When a disease breaks out in the community — as COVID-19 is clearly doing in parts of the U.S. — that work becomes much more difficult, especially if testing continues to lag.

Modern technology, though, offers the potential to surveil exactly where people are and where they've been, through the location data on their smartphones and the trail of transactions they leave in their wake.

  • China used data from state-run mobile carriers to track down people who had slipped out of quarantine during the worst stages of its COVID-19 outbreak.
  • Major companies like Alibaba developed apps that could classify people based on their travel history and risk of exposure to the virus.
  • "In the era of big data and internet, the flow of each person can be clearly seen," epidemiologist Li Lanjuan told China's state broadcaster in February. "With such new technologies, we should make full use of them to find the source of infection and contain the source of infection."

In the U.S. and other Western countries, such efforts would likely face major ethical, legal and regulatory barriers, as my Axios colleague Scott Rosenberg wrote earlier this week.

  • Those barriers are in place for a reason — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for authorizing a plan to tap a secret collection of cellphone data to identify those who may have come into contact with the virus.

Yes, but: We are entering unprecedented territory with COVID-19. The fundamental challenge the U.S. faces in its response is a lack of data about who is sick and contagious and who isn't. Without that information, state and local governments have been forced to rely on blunt force tools of mass closures and social distancing that seem poised to kill the economy.

  • There are less intrusive tracking tools that might help epidemiologists ahead of the outbreak, like Kinsa Health's internet-connected smart thermometers. By instantly gathering reports of fevers around the country, Kinsa can alert medical officials "so the system can respond before an outbreak becomes an epidemic," says the company's founder Inder Singh.
  • As COVID-19 worsens, though, expect to see a greater willingness to trade privacy for effective health surveillance, just as 9/11 led to a tightening of security around airports and other public spaces.
"A situation like the pandemic creates a fundamental shift in how people react to technology. This is the direction we are going to be moving in."
— Labhesh Patel, chief technology officer at Jumio, an ID verification company

The bottom line: We've already given up so much in the fight against COVID-19. Some elements of personal privacy may be the next to go — and don't expect the surveillance to end when the pandemic does.

Go deeper

Jan. 6 select committee subpoenas four Trump aides

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Jan 6. select committee investigating the deadly Capitol riot has subpoenaed four aides to former President Trump for testimony and documents.

Why it matters: Former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, former communications official Dan Scavino, former Defense Department official Kash Patel, and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon were all in touch "with the White House on or in the days leading up to the January 6th insurrection," the committee said in a release.

U.S. friends in Latin America are turning to China

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The U.S. is losing Latin America to China without putting up a fight, Ecuador’s ambassador to Washington told Axios, laying bare her frustrations with early inattention from the Biden administration.

Why it matters: Ecuador isn't alone. China has deepened its engagement in the region, and it's now the top trading partner for many of the region's largest economies. That gives Beijing considerable leverage in a region historically dominated by the U.S., and makes Latin America a major frontier in the global competition for influence.

1 dead, 14 injured in shooting at Kroger grocery store near Memphis

One person was killed and 14 others were injured Thursday in a shooting at a Kroger grocery store in Collierville, Tenn., near Memphis, the town's spokesperson Jennifer Casey said, per CNN.

What they're saying: "I've been involved in [police work] for 34 years and I have never seen anything like [this]," Police Chief Dale Lane said at a press conference.