Surveillance for health: Safeguards needed

As part of the nation’s record $2 trillion relief bill, Congress has set aside $500 million for the CDC to develop a “public health surveillance and data collection system” meant to track the spread of coronavirus. While it’s not clear what this system will look like or how it will function, it puts Americans on a historic path towards giving up certain privacies for the benefit of public health.

Sarah Kreps, professor of government at Cornell University, studies surveillance systems and cybersecurity. She says the government is on the right track in prioritizing public health over privacy, but safeguards will need to be put in place to prevent surveillance measures from sticking around when the pandemic subsides.

“As the coronavirus continues to kill thousands every day, governments are groping for strategies that might control the spread. Mass surveillance tools — which leverage everything from location data, credit card information, drones, and CCTV cameras to monitor quarantined people and track the spread of the coronavirus — look like they may offer some hope.

“China, Israel, Singapore, and South Korea all appear to have used some combination of these tools to positive effect, trading off privacy for lower infection rates. What might seem anathema to the U.S. in ordinary circumstances, now seems more tolerable in these extraordinary times. 

“On the one hand, giving up some privacy to save lives and regain some freedom of movement, commerce, and expression seems like a straight-forward calculation. On the other, historical experience suggests that once governments gain additional powers, they are loath to give them up, which could have lasting, adverse implications."

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