Fighting Coronavirus With Personal Data and Digital Technology

by Grace Chen

As the world braves its battle against the novel coronavirus, many countries are stepping up their use of personal data to contain, prepare for, and respond to the spread of COVID-19 throughout their community and beyond. Not only does COVID-19 present an immense challenge to frontline healthcare workers, but it has also raised concerns about the ways in which personal data (including healthcare data) are being used to combat the disease.

The early successes in East Asia, are in part, a result of the governments’ proactive efforts in deploying technology to collect personal data, including location-based contact tracing of those who are infected and their movements. South Korea, one of the most curve-flattening case-examples, has launched a mobile app that alerts users who have come within a 100-meter radius of any diagnosed patient and reveals information such as the patient’s diagnosis date, nationality, age, and gender.1 Another example of such technology adoption is Taiwan, where the government has integrated its national health insurance database with data from immigration and customs systems. This measure effectively gives clinics visibility into patients’ travel history and additional health records, making case identification easier. Moreover, Hong Kong has begun putting electronic wristbands on all arriving travelers as part of its 14-day quarantine mandate.

After months of being under lockdown, residents in Wuhan, China, the origin of COVID-19, are now gradually being allowed to leave the city. China has implemented a color-coded QR system that assigns citizens to a color code, which indicates their health statuses. To obtain a QR code, citizens must disclose personal data, including passport number, phone number, past medical records, travel history, and presence of COVID-19 symptoms, which are checked across multiple databases on local and national levels.

Drawing from the anecdotes about the collection and integration of personal data in population health initiatives, it is increasingly clear that public health decisions and outcomes heavily depend on the extent of data that are readily available. These data points can range from diagnostic testing, to patient case reports, and to sustained local contact tracing. To close the data-sharing gaps, a robust, comprehensive digital infrastructure is necessary to facilitate the exchange of personal data that has now become the new norm.  

These open-source initiatives then prompt the question: is the deployment of such digital tools a compromise on data privacy? Debates surrounding personal liberties vs. interventions for the public good have been revived, especially in western cultures that have always valued and prioritized civil liberties. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, it is imperative for corporations and governments alike to balance the management of personal data for public safety while respecting concerns of individual rights and privacy.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, it is imperative for corporations and governments alike to balance the management of personal data for public safety while respecting concerns of individual rights and privacy.

In the United States, digital adoption for contact tracing is more privacy-centric. Most recently, Facebook, Google, Apple, among other tech giants have come together and pledged to work with the government in combating the outbreak. For example, Facebook is conducting an opt-in symptom survey to predict the case counts that hospitals may see in the coming days, under the assumption that the number of symptomatic responses is a preliminary proxy for the traffic of individuals who seek medical help later. These data are also used to draw out insights on a country-by-country basis. Similarly, Apple and Google are sharing anonymized, aggregated location mapping data to show the level of adherence to social distancing policies in response to COVID-19 and the mandated lockdown orders. That said, efforts to remove personally identifiable information can serve as a safeguard for users who have concerns about data misuse and security.

Having these digital tools alone is insufficient to control the spread of this pandemic. There is a need for aggressive testing and coordinated healthcare systems, complemented with strong leadership and response from public health experts. But this is a big step forward. Access to reliable data has always been critical for the expansion of research capabilities in times of global emergencies and crises. And COVID-19 is no different. The ultimate hope is that pooled data can achieve better results and accelerate the finding of a potential solution or cure in the near future. It is the same debate for using aggregate healthcare data to provide healthcare providers insights into their patients’ conditions.

In a similar approach that many governments have implemented, the United States relies on such contact-tracing technology to reopen the economy and help people reenter the society. However, any policy that is adopted must incorporate measures to offer data protection and transparency. As agencies and brands alike cope to meet the changing needs of our audiences in this unprecedented time, it is imperative to take heed of these COVID-19 efforts to ensure that our proprietary data-based solutions are also optimized to deliver the most public good while protecting individual users.