Innovation and the P word, Part III: Amidst a Pandemic
In the first and second posts in this now three-part series, we looked at how InnerSpace prioritizes privacy through its technology, and the value exchange of privacy and innovation through the lens of Sidewalk Labs. Now, amidst a global pandemic, we are revisiting privacy in a time that demands heightened well-being and safety.
Much has changed in the world since we last wrote about innovation and privacy. Thanks to COVID-19, businesses are in survival mode, governments are confronting unprecedented scenarios – and decisions that once took months to negotiate are now being executed in just days. When it comes to containing a virus and its unfolding consequences, the modus operandi is speed over perfection.
Responding quickly – and radically – on all fronts doesn’t just save lives. It will help us preserve economies that are distraught with workers getting pink slips, manufacturers shifting production to support essential needs, and start-ups worrying about keeping the lights on.
Putting measures in place now to support businesses and “flatten the curve” will not only help us conquer this current wave of illness and uncertainty, but will help us be proactive in the face of a potential second wave of COVID-19 – or any other calamity that may darken our collective doorstep.
Technology: a panacea?
How does this relate to the value/privacy exchange? In the face of a global pandemic, what is reasonable to expect people to disclose about themselves and their whereabouts – and how does that subsequently influence public health and safety?
Smart technology covers a broad spectrum these days. On one end there are, for instance, Smart thermometers – devices that, connected to a cellphone app, can track fevers in near-real time and potentially help track the spread of COVID-19 and reveal measures needed to curtail it. Here, users voluntarily purchase the thermometers. But how would the value/privacy discourse change if governments moved to mandate them? If citizens are now linked directly to their temperature readouts – with quarantine measures enforced accordingly?
If we look at the people-tracking underway in countries around the world in an effort to ensure compliance with self-isolation, we can see where things can start to become disconcerting. Israel is just one example of a country moving toward what some are calling a “surveillance democracy”, looking to track citizens with the virus as well as individuals exposed to them. All of this begs the question: where is the threshold between tracking in the name of public safety – and an invasion of an individual’s privacy?
Toronto mayor John Tory may have requested private information from one of the Big 3 telecoms in Canada to provide data on the movement of people’s cell phones in an effort to stop people from congregating in large groups. This isn’t considered lawful today without explicit legal authority, but it’s not hard to imagine public safety systems in place to make this information available in the future. As Tory put it: “we just need more and more data about people’s habits, and about things and other applications you may think of that relate to everything from the shortage of personal protective equipment we have, through to compliance.”
In a time when extraordinary measures are being undertaken in all facets of life, and with so many lives on the line, is the privacy:value exchange one where we need to loosen our grip?
Location technology ≠ surveillance states
At InnerSpace, we trade in the world’s most accurate indoor location technology. For years, we have been decoding how it can be used to best serve both businesses and the public good. In the current crisis, we’ve realized that InnerSpace and others in our industry have the ability to play important roles to help countries avoid economic downturns, businesses avoid bankruptcy, and people avoid hospitalizations and negative health outcomes.
It is possible to respect an individuals’ privacy and contribute to the public good. Case in point: What if you could pinpoint the location of certain infected individuals and health authorities could identify which public spaces they frequented over the past days or even weeks? Such knowledge could enable targeted messaging as part of a public service: if you or your family was in X mall or Y office or Z arena during this time, it’s critical you get tested or self-quarantine. (Such precision messaging could also help avoid panic.)
The benefit of indoor location data is that it’s an ‘always on’ solution that requires minimal processing efforts and doesn’t capture any personally identifiable information like someone’s face, height, or phone number. Unlike video and CCTV deployed in the UK and now India, which require vast amounts of time and effort to process, indoor location data can be analyzed in minutes.
We know that governments can use such advanced systems to monitor a spreading health crisis and communicate with the public in the interest of safety. Location technology such as ours can turn WiFi networks into public safety innovations that effectively and ethically stand able to help save lives.
The ability for officials to identify where people with the virus have been is, as we’ve seen, of remarkable importance. It’s time to start the conversation to help inform action in extraordinary circumstances.