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JERUSALEM – GADI Ben-Avi is pretty sure he hasn't been exposed to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19. That's because a new government-produced mobile phone app is supposed to notify him if he has
crossed paths with someone who has tested positive for the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
"So far, I'm OK," says Ben-Avi, a computer consultant who lives in Jerusalem, which has the most cases of COVID-19 in Israel. He is one of about 2 million people in the country, or one-fifth of the population, who have downloaded the app, called Hamagen, Hebrew for "the shield," which compares GPS data from a user's phone with government epidemiological data of locations visited by those who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The app is the latest development in Israel's attempts to balance technology with privacy in the fight to track and slow the virus, and one of a growing number of government-created technology solutions around the world aimed at tracking and gathering data on COVID-19. While the HaMagen app is open-source, voluntary and does not share users' information, it comes as Israel's security services are using separate, more invasive surveillance measures and as a number of other governments around the world have employed controversial tracking systems.
"Mobile phone location data can be an important tool in public health, and in places where it's used heavily, it seems to be helping," says Steven Feldstein, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace. Feldstein says that in places such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, such technology is being used to make sure citizens comply with quarantine and other
measures, and in Russia and China, government officials are using facial recognition programs to track people with the virus.
"But while it's important and useful to leverage these tools, even in democracies, it's important to have limitations in scope, and also to let the public know exactly how it works."
In Israel in mid-March, concerns about privacy surfaced when the Israel Security Agency, also known by its Hebrew initials Shin Bet, started using its mobile-phone location tracking technology – usually reserved for operations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – to help trace and isolate the contacts of Israelis diagnosed with COVID-19. After about two weeks of use, the Shin Bet said it had resulted in tracking down at least 500 people who later tested positive for COVID-19.
"It has helped us track down and isolate contacts more quickly, breaking the chain of infection and saving people," says Udi Kleiner, deputy head of public health at the Israeli health ministry.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that the program is allowed to continue as long a parliamentary committee oversees it.
"I think there is sufficient oversight now," says Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, which recently published a poll revealing that 59% of Israeli trust the Shin Bet not to abuse the information it collects through the virus surveillance program.
"The effectiveness and the limits of who sees the data ultimately makes its harm seem limited now," says Simon Perry, a retired Israeli police officer and professor at the Institute of Criminology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
But Perry and others say it has also become clear that such surveillance of citizens cannot continue for the long term, so that's partly why the health ministry rushed to develop the voluntary app, amid fears that the court could stop the Shin Bet program.
"Health and other officials realized right from the start that there were huge problems with using the Shin Bet," says Omri Segev Moyal, CEO of Profero, a cybersecurity advisory firm that the government hired to audit the app and ensure users' privacy is protected.
"But with the new app, no one is giving up privacy for health reasons," Moyal says. "It's meant to build awareness, not to be a tool of enforcement." While the government requires anyone exposed to someone with COVID-19 to self-isolate for 14 days, the app does not order or monitor compliance with this. "When people see their results, they choose themselves what to do with the information."
In addition to legal frameworks, culture is also a strong determining factor for how much surveillance citizens will tolerate, says Annalisa Nash Fernandez, a New York-based intercultural strategist who has studied the intersection of culture and cybersecurity.
"Collective cultures, like in many East Asian countries and the global south, prioritize the needs of the community above those of the individual, so that results in acceptance of enforcement measures," she says. In parts of East Asia, the recent history of other outbreaks, including SARS, which killed 744 people in 2002 and 2003, also makes people more willing to give up some degree of privacy for the sake of public health, Feldstein says.
Experts say mobile phones have even more potential to track exact locations, by using features beyond GPS data, which most apps now rely on. Israeli company Viziblezone, which develops technology for self-driving cars to avoid pedestrians based on mobile phone signals, is now testing an app to track and enforce social distancing. It alerts people whenever they become too physically close to someone else, and it could track down not only the geographic places visited by a person who later tests positive for COVID-19, but also which individuals they were closest to, says Viziblezone CEO Gabi Ofir. Such a system could be helpful to maintain some degree of social distancing as workplaces begin to open again when the pandemic wanes, Ofir says.
Apple and Google have also announced plans to release software that could help developers build apps to track how close phones come to each other, ultimately allowing users to find out if they were near someone with COVID-19, assuming people notify the app of a positive test.
Only when the pandemic wanes will it become clear how much phone tracking the public will accept, or even voluntarily participate in, for health reasons, Feldstein says.
"In many places around the world, there are no norms established yet for these tools during health emergencies."
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