Technology could make fighting COVID less restrictive but privacy will take a hit

Now that the world has completed a full circuit around the Sun with COVID as a passenger, it is possible to see which jurisdictions responded well, and which are still struggling to come to grips with the virus.

Two of the nations held up as exemplars of how to fight COVID were Taiwan and New Zealand, but the approaches were very different: One has locked down parts of its population multiple times, and the other with more experience of respiratory viruses, has avoided such approaches.

A recent academic paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand examined the two nations and raised a number of questions that deserve to be considered in light of a year of lockdowns, contact tracing, outbreaks, and other restrictions on the movement of people.

The central push of the paper is that as New Zealand has kept individual privacy as a paramount concern, this has led directly to the use of city or nationwide lockdowns, which it has labelled as a blunt instrument.

“An approach not much more advanced than techniques to mitigate the Spanish Flu pandemic over a century ago,” the paper states.

By contrast, the paper contests that Taiwan was more successful because it embraced technology, particularly big data analysis, and was able to prepare the population, following SARS and MERS, so it could use such tactics for the coronavirus pandemic.

“This new strategy aimed to link real-time medical information, location [from cell towers], and contact data of infected individuals (confirmed or suspected) to assist curbing the spread of future diseases,” the paper states.

When someone entered Taiwan, an “electronic digital fence” system which monitored a person’s cell phone location was used to enable people to quarantine at home, rather than in a hotel quarantine system.

“If a person in quarantine left their home, or their phone died and thus stopped transmitting a signal, local police and health or civil affairs agencies would be notified,” the paper said.

“This system was complemented by random health-checks, community policing and phone calls from health officials and public authorities to ensure compliance. Individuals who did not have a cell phone capable of sharing location data were provided with one at the border.”

See also: Living with COVID-19 creates a privacy dilemma for us all

The system allowed people to have a degree of autonomy during quarantine, the paper said, at a cost to having their location tracked by the government.

This system sounds particularly attractive as someone living in a country that has seen secondary lockdowns put in place, sometimes lasting 112 days, after breaches in hotel quarantine. The retort that mobile phone location tracking is an imposition holds little water when under current systems, people are locked in a hotel room for 14 days precisely so that the authorities know exactly where they are.

While Taiwan has the legislation in place to enable it to combine disparate datasets for the purposes of fighting a health emergency, New Zealand health authorities have “less freedom” in that respect and the nation’s Privacy Act reigns supreme.

This has led to NZ relying on an opt-in model for its QR code and Bluetooth-driven COVID Tracer app. And while the app has 3 million downloads in a country of 5 million people, that does not mean it is being used.

Last month, on the other side of the Tasman, the Australian Digital Transformation Agency revealed that it has spent AU$6.7 million on a similarly opt-in app, that has only found 17 cases, and currently costs AU$100,000 a month to keep running.

If there is one thing the past year has shown, it is that thinking a population will install and use an opt-in app for contact tracing is misplaced.

“The reliance upon opt-in models and a consent model of privacy will not resolve many of the limitations found in the current New Zealand approach, as evidenced by the COVID-19 response,” the paper argues.

“In fact, there are few, if any, examples globally where such models have been able to provide the level of accuracy found in Taiwan where the benefits have been seen in less strict (but nevertheless long term) social distancing rules and improved freedom of movement and association at the expense of aspects of personal privacy.”

The paper contrasted the approaches when each nation was faced with outbreaks.

After a visit from the Diamond Princess, which would end up being quarantined in Yokohama, Taiwan pulled together payment information, positioning data of shuttle busses from the ship, and CCTV footage to identify residents who might have been in contact with infected cruise ship passengers.

“The data collated was then compared with the data of Taiwanese residents who had carried a mobile phone within 500 metres of the possibly infected individuals,” the paper states.

“If they had been in these locations for more than five minutes they were classified as people possibly infected by the passengers of the cruise ship.”

Meanwhile in New Zealand in August, after 100 days without the virus in the nation, it escaped.

“NZ was reliant on manual contact tracing efforts, and potentially the COVID Tracer app (although reports suggest that it was only used in a few cases) and then had to turn to the blunt instrument of a lockdown when the contact tracing system could not keep up,” the paper said.

“This lockdown was effective, but at great cost economically (and to civil liberties).

“Taiwan’s greater use of personal information and data sharing appears to have allowed for COVID-19 to be contained with less disruption than experienced in New Zealand, using more ‘traditional’ mechanisms.”

In the months since this column raised the privacy dilemma at the heart of living with COVID, most of Australia’s capital cities have seen lockdowns of various lengths, sometimes lasting only a handful of days when case numbers did not rise, and often accompanied by states other than New South Wales throwing up hard borders at a moment’s notice. Travelling interstate has now become a -style decision that Australians think about, and the thought of how to get back home quickly is one that demands consideration.

As the paper highlights, there is another approach that needs to be considered by authorities.

The Taiwanese approach is particularly draconian on the individual privacy front, and while it would fail to get off the mark in an American context, it might be useful in the Australian one, for instance.

Thanks to a combination of authoritarian inclinations and political cowardice, Australia already has a store of the location of every resident for two years, and the general public doesn’t seem to care about the privacy imposition.

Given that access to that store has not been used primarily for severe crimes like terrorism, unlike the sales pitch and promises it arrived with, why not use the data retention system to enhance and speed up the response to COVID outbreaks?

If the privacy of Australians is already under the pump, we might as well get some public good from it.

The balance between privacy and emergency measures will be different for everyone. There is too much culture, history, and acceptance of things in one place that are unacceptable to others. But after more than a year, the least each nation can do is look to improve how they respond to the virus, rather than dealing with the same situation with the same playbook we walked into early 2020 with.

As vaccines deployments progress, the end of the pandemic could be near, but as Taiwan has shown, the time we have could be used to prepare for the next emergency, and discuss what works for our societies.

ZDNET’S MONDAY MORNING OPENER 

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet’s global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

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