Hey Google! Life matters more than privacy!

  March 12th, 2020

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make the assertion that if any one organization can significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19, it’s Google.

Because nobody is immune to this (novel) disease and there are as yet no treatments or vaccines, the best and only public health response is to identify and isolate people who may be infected. Unfortunately, it’s very time consuming and difficult to figure out where an infected person has been, who they have interacted with and who else was subsequently in the same place, potentially touching contaminated surfaces.

Wouldn’t it be useful to have a central database that tracks the movement of every person, in fine detail, over time? If someone suspects they may be infected or is tested positive for COVID-19, we could lookup where that person has been, who else is at risk and notify those people of whether and where they may have been exposed.

Of course, I’m talking about a “Big Brother” surveillance state here. This is 100% antithetical to any expectation of privacy, and under normal circumstances would be an obscene abuse of technology. Such a system is probably illegal in most Western democracies (but I am not a legal expert).

In the context of a pandemic, we can no longer pretend that we live in normal circumstances. Such a system of surveillance and personalized alerts would significantly slow the spread of the disease and would save thousands or possibly even millions of lives. I can’t imagine what privacy argument would be more compelling than that.

So why do I call out Google? Because everyone already carries a personal surveillance device around in their pocket (their phones), most of those already run Android (from Google) and all of the Apple devices either already do have the Google Maps app installed or else users can easily install Google Maps.

What I’m proposing is that Google enhance (temporarily) Google Maps to have a “pandemic mode” where it:

  • Tracks location data in fine detail both temporally (say every 2 minutes) and spatially (say +/- 2 metres).
  • Uploads this data to Google’s cloud platform.
  • Prompts users to periodically report their own health status (healthy, mild cold-like symptoms, suspicion of COVID-19, tested positive for COVID-19 or tested negative for COVID-19).
  • Displays an alert if the phone’s location history intersects that of someone with a suspected or confirmed infection. The owner of the phone should then quarantine themselves and their families and ask to be tested for the infection.

The Google Maps service could then:

  • Mark locations, such as stores and restaurants, where suspected or confirmed infected persons have spent time.
  • Notify known retail proprietors of risk, so that they can deep clean their locations and report back that their location is safe again.
  • Notify transit operators, Uber drivers, taxi drivers, etc. (via the Maps app on their phones) of vehicles which need to be sanitized and drivers who need to be isolated.
  • Most controversially, maybe notify authorities of people who should be tested and/or who may be violating quarantine.

All of this would undoubtedly violate the current Maps app terms of service and might break laws that affect privacy. Canadian, US and other governments would have to explicitly invite Google to do this and protect them against litigation related to the requisite invasion of privacy. It should go without saying that the enhanced data collection must end when the pandemic winds down and the data should (a) not be used for any other purpose and (b) be destroyed once the pandemic is over.

I would make this opt-in on behalf of users, but encourage governments to run public safety campaigns inviting citizens to opt in.

I think Google could probably build and deliver the required enhancements to Google Maps and supporting cloud-hosted infrastructure in a week if they push really hard. Most of the infrastructure is already there and Google employs the best and brightest.

I bet Google’s stock would skyrocket if they did this, with the blessing and support of governments and with opt-in by users. That, plus the larger social good, should be more than adequate motivation.

I, for one, am willing to sacrifice any illusions I may have of privacy, for a finite time period, and do my part to help society contain this virus.

Are you?

Google – are you listening?


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