Is giving up your phone privacy a fair trade if it slows coronavirus spread?

If your phone pinged and told you that you passed someone on the sidewalk three days ago who is now in an ICU with the novel coronavirus, how would you feel about that?

It’s not good news, obviously, but how would you feel about the fact that the information existed to be passed on to you?

“I think there would probably be a range of reactions in the population. Some people would say, ‘Yes, yes, please tell me,’ and some people would say, ‘How dare you kind of follow me around like that?’” says University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman.

Over the past few years, we’ve learned the hard way how much privacy we’ve traded for the convenience that mobile devices give us. The convenience was obvious upfront, while the loss of privacy usually was something we figured out later on.

Location data helps you make your way around traffic jams, for example, but also provides a detailed record of your personal movements.

The fitness app Strava outed the locations of U.S. and Russian bases in obscure parts of places like Djibouti, Syria and Niger. In an extreme example of how total our loss of privacy can be, the sex toy maker We-Vibe settled a lawsuit in 2017 after it was discovered that its smartphone-connected devices were sending information back to the company about how it was used, which included the owner’s e-mail address.

It hasn’t escaped the notice of governments around the world that devices that track the location of more or less everybody in the society are more than a little useful if you’re trying to deal with an epidemic in part by limiting people’s movements.

Last week, Israel’s domestic security agency, Shin Bet, started using cellphone location data to track the movements of people who tested positive for COVID-19 and to identify people who had been in contact with them and should be quarantined.

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