The amount of data tech that companies store and share about their users (read: you and me) has long been controversial.
But in times of crisis, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, public sentiment about the balance between the common good and consumer privacy tends to shift.
Given the shortage of reliable testing for COVID-19, and revelations that many cases are remaining undiagnosed, researchers are turning to an unlikely source to complete the picture of upcoming COVID-19 infections: tech companies and the AI community.
Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued a call to action to the artificial intelligence community to join its task force developing “new data-mining techniques to answer high-priority scientific questions related to COVID-19.” Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, IBM and over 60 tech companies are involved with the effort, organized by public health leaders from Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, the National Institutes of Health, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, other research institutions.
They are focusing on four areas: location data, clinical data, social isolation, and telehealth data.
Public health experts consistently emphasize that time is of the essence. A Johns Hopkins study found that COVID-19 cases would have been reduced by 66% if China had implemented its protective measures just 1 week earlier, and by 95% if the same measures were enacted 3 weeks earlier.
“It’s all hands on deck as we face the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. Eric Horvitz, chief scientific officer at Microsoft. “We need to come together as companies, governments and scientists…to bring our best technologies to bear across biomedicine, epidemiology, AI and other sciences.”
The latest task force is one manifestation of the global public, private and non-profit partnerships resembling wartime efforts and allyships. From data science collaborations between transactionally competitive private entities; to around-the-clock clinical research efforts by international teams of scientists; to bipartisan support of previously polarizing social welfare programs; and the shift of manufacturing output to essential items – COVID-19 is impacting the way organizations and individuals in every sector perceive their role in the allocation, distribution, and manufacturing of personally protective equipment and life-saving resources for hospitals, which are projected to reach critical capacity.
In May of 2019, Facebook’s data science team introduced disease-prevention maps to help nonprofits and universities identify future outbreaks. They include movement maps chronicling how people travel, and population density maps leveraging satellite imagery and census data to include insights on demographics such as the ages of population.
Balancing Privacy Concerns
Private companies’ historic stances on user privacy have come under fire for different reasons, and often vary situationally: from allegations that companies like Apple did too little to support prosecuting terrorism and violent criminal activity, to Facebook’s controversy of collecting and sharing too much personal data about users without their consent.
“We’re coming off years of intense criticism of these companies … but at some point we need to rely on them,” said Michelle Richardson, director of the Privacy & Data Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology. “If people are scared because of past overreaches, this is an opportunity [for these companies] to rebuild trust.”
Though not without some controversy, including concerns over the possibility that data could be re-identified with personal information that may be exploited, current data science efforts are overwhelmingly regarded as a public service by the scientific community. They’re seen as a critical piece in understanding and containing a global threat, including predicting where new cases are likely to emerge and where medical resources should be allocated.
Some believe the partnership between tech companies and public entities to combat the spread of COVID-19 effort could permanently “change the narrative for these companies when it comes to data privacy,” according to Ellen Sheng of CNBC. What constitutes informed consent, opt-ins, and valid third party sharing has come under increased regulation and in recent years – often varying considerably between jurisdictions.
“People may have privacy concerns, and some of these concerns may be legitimate. But focusing on only privacy while ignoring public health would be a mistake,” said Daniel Castro, vice president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He emphasized the opportunity for this task force to demonstrate how to leverage available data sets to promote public health while “protecting American values and civil liberties.”
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone emphasized, “In the U.S. we briefed the CDC on the work we do with aggregate, de-identified data maps with researchers…”
Google spokesman Johnny Luu echoed the sentiment by stating that the company is “exploring ways that aggregate anonymized location information could help in the fight against COVID-19,” in a statement to The Washington Post. This could include determining the “impact of social distancing, similar to the way we show popular restaurant times and traffic patterns in Google Maps… and would not involve sharing data about any individual’s location, movement or contacts.”
In times of crisis, especially unprecedented ones, norms shift. The utility of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, canned goods, and surgical masks haven’t changed in recent weeks – but their use cases and perceived value have.
It remains to be seen which of these new trends and paradigm shifts endure once the imminent threat of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us. By any account, increased cross-functional collaboration between teams with different perspectives and skill sets should continue to advance our collective human knowledge and ongoing fight against pandemics, which are projected to become more likely in the future.