Tracking in, Privacy Out


Contact tracking means trading off personal freedom for safety. That’s a lesson for those building the IoT

Essential workers in places like hospitals, warehouses, factories, grocery stores, post offices, and delivery depots have kept a locked-down world functional during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without them there would have been more deaths, greater shortages and widespread panic buying.

Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS- CoV-2, is so contagious, it caught the world off-guard, and these essential workers faced increased daily exposure to the virus with little or no protection. They bravely carried on doing their jobs taking high risks to do so. Many paid with their lives to keep the majority of the public safe. For example, the U.K. Government reported 49 officially- verified deaths of NHS staff from COVID-19 during the pandemic. But the country’s The Guardian newspaper suggests the number could be as high as 200.

No one wants to see that continue, so as the first wave of the pandemic starts to ease, essential workers must get better protection from any second spikes. Essential workers are just that, and by protecting their health, we protect the health and wellbeing of everybody.

At the same time, such is the economic carnage, the rest of the world cannot afford to stay locked down indefinitely. And that means in the not-too-distant future figuring how to get the majority of people back to work in a way where the risks are low enough that everyone feels safe.

Contact tracing—typically using Bluetooth technology to record close associations such that if one person later contracts the virus others can be notified and tested— offers an answer. But it faces resistance, primarily because of fears of intrusions on civil liberties. Those fears need to be addressed, not just to aid the fight against SARS-CoV-2 but also to unleash the potential of the IoT.

Selling tracking and tracing

The one tactic that proved extremely effective in countries such as South Korea and Singapore, that put the brakes on early to slow the spread of coronavirus, was detailed contact tracing. But with populations elsewhere feeling suppressed by the lock down and effective contact tracing demanding 80 percent-plus continuous tracking compliance to work, will workers buy into it?

“Unless we can find an effective pharmaceutical way to treat COVID-19 through some kind of vaccine or antiviral that’s at least effective enough to mitigate its health impact, containing the pandemic is in many ways a data challenge,” says Jakub Krzych, CEO of Estimote. (Estimote is one of a number of Nordic Semiconductor customers that has developed Bluetooth LE contact tracing wearables.)

“Who’s tested positive and is carrying the virus? Who have they been in close contact with over the past two weeks who could now also be infected? How can they be traced and alerted? And in the near future, who’s tested positive for having had the virus and so potentially immune? It could be that once mass antibody testing is in place, workforces may have to be divided into those who’ve had COVID-19 and those who have not.”

“In 99 percent of infectious diseases, if you’ve had it and you’ve got antibodies, you wouldn’t get it again,” Dr Christian Jessen, a British physician told U.K. magazine Closer. “For the tiny proportion who may get it twice, it would be remarkably milder. We don’t absolutely understand this virus, but we understand many others that are very similar, and they all behave pretty much the same way.”

Krzych explains that in the workplace, a large-scale, continuous surveillance operation is unprecedented in terms of invasion of privacy, and only likely to work if it has the backing of the workforce. “This is particularly the case in the Western world,” he says. “And particularly in the EU where attitudes to privacy are much stricter than in the U.S., for example.”

Transparency is the key

In a recent opinion item published on Bloomberg (If we must build a surveillance state, let’s do it properly) author Andreas Kluth noted: “The most successful data model in the world so far is not South Korea or Singapore but Taiwan. Like South Korea, Taiwan enforces quarantines with cellphone tracking and has stitched together various government databases, such as travel and health records. But Taiwan and its people added a twist.”

Kluth goes on to explain that in Taiwan, the whole country voluntarily partnered with the government to create databases in which information flows both from the bottom up and from the top down.

To make new online and offline tools for fighting the virus, ‘hacktivists’, developers and citizens have been collaborating with the government on “vTaiwan”, a sort of “online democracy town hall and brainstorming site”. One tool, for example, prevented a run on face masks by mapping where the stocks were and allocating them where they were needed. Kluth notes that by involving people in solutions, rather than dictating policies, the process is transparent and inspires trust.

It’s this transparency that Estimote’s Krzych agrees is the key to an effective workplace tracking and tracing program: “Nobody wants interminable lockdowns, and that means we have to accept some loss of privacy to regain some semblance of a return to normal life. If the payoff is large enough, people will trade some loss of privacy for greater freedom from lockdown and better safety at work. But it’s important the privacy they trade isn’t abused by employers to, for example, continuously monitor where they are working and who they are working with or speaking to.”

A lesson for the IoT

One bright light that could emerge from the hell that is the COVID-19 pandemic is the powerful lessons that can be applied to the IoT, which has long been hampered by concerns over privacy. Like effectively combating COVID-19, but on a vastly and more detailed scale, the IoT is all about processing data gained by digitizing the physical world at a granular level. Such a system creates unprecedented potential for privacy intrusion to the point of knowing not only where an individual is located, but what they are doing, and with whom, at any time.

The key lesson from those countries where the pandemic response proved most effective is that there will always be privacy tradeoffs for applications leveraging the IoT. And these will only get larger over time.

But if the perceived benefits outweigh those tradeoffs, and citizens ultimately believe they have control through full transparency over how their data is collected and used, then privacy concerns over the IoT could finally be addressed and accepted.

That will mean a world that’s a lot safer, happier, healthier, creative and productive than today’s.

If the payoff is large enough, people will trade some loss of privacy for greater freedom from lockdown and better safety at work

Jakub Krzych, CEO of Estimote