Big Data solving pandemic challenges – how much privacy are we willing to give (up)?

Big Data solving pandemic challenges – how much privacy are we willing to give (up)?

By Agata Chmiel

It seems that the world has never been more concerned with ‘numbers’ like it is right now. Patients, healthcare staff, hospital beds, medical equipment – each one is a tiny number in an overwhelming pool of data that the public and private sector can refer to during a pandemic. With over 200 countries impacted with the Covid-19 [1], being able to analyse the past, track the present, and prognosticate the future is done with the help of Big Data. Moreover, governments are increasingly fond of using Big Data solutions [2] for regulatory and tracking purposes. This has been met with both appraisal [3] and concern [4], especially from the data privacy standpoint. 

Some academics are of the opinion that privacy is usually the currency [5] that governments use to pay for technological solutions to local and global issues. Representatives of both private and public sectors begin to highlight the value of understanding this cost and talk about ‘the need to find balance’ [6] between privacy and usage of Big Data in the global fight against Covid-19.

The purpose of this article is twofold, to see the benefits that Big Data has to offer in times of a pandemic, but also to debate how much people may need (and would be willing) to pay for it with their privacy. 

Big Data comes to rescue

When it comes to the Covid-19 battle, Harvard scientists believe that “the answer lies in computation” [7] Julie Shah, an AI researcher, and Neel Shah, a public health specialist, argue that there are multiple ways in which Big Data can be a secret weapon against the coronavirus. And they are not the only ones, Forbes and Foreign Policy editors also agree that using Big Data in the form of analytics and tracking is “inevitable” [8]. Noteworthy, Big Data has already been in use in at least three major areas of healthcare.

Tracking patients

One of the three ‘V’s’ of Big Data is volume. Big Data is named for exactly that, dealing with large amounts of data. For example, the current number of documented Covid-19 infections oscillates around 2,6 million, a number that rises daily[9]. Governments need accurate and timely updates of those numbers to be able to calculate how many beds are left in hospitals, how much equipment is missing, and what the general infections trend is. Some countries like China or the United States are already using Big Data to track current and potential patients. For example, China has installed thermal scanners in public transport to track and detect temperature changes. If an abnormally high body temperature is registered, the potential patient is going for testing. This technology can be used to trace back passengers who travelled on the same train or bus as the infected person. What is required of the citizens at the moment, is to use their ID-cards while travelling on public transport.

Visualizing state measures and foretelling 

Another significant area in which governments can use Big Data in times of pandemic is to visualize the current situation and to run digital simulations of the future. While some argue that the data is still growing and may not be enough to prepare an accurate prognosis [10], there is little doubt that running simulations using growing chunks of data is impossible without the active role of technology. Taiwan is a good example, where trusting in Big Data paid off to avoid an uncontrolled outbreak. The government integrated multiple national databases including health insurance and immigration to prepare a Covid-19 forecast. Stanford University praised Taiwan’s tech-savvy preparedness for the crisis and added that Taipei even“used Quick Response (QR) code scanning and online reporting of travel history and health symptoms to classify travelers’ infectious risks based on flight origin and travel history” [11]An approach, that many European countries wish to implement on the EU level [12].

Supporting healthcare professionals and academics  

In addition to the daily support that Big Data is offering to the governments, the application of it is also crucial for academic research that stands first in line to develop a potential vaccine. For example, Maastricht University predicts that there are approximately 29,000 scientific publications on coronaviruses [13], which makes the research impossible to be reviewed individually. Platforms using Big Data analytics, such as Semantic Scholar [14] are now providing free academic resources, with appropriate indexes and filters, that allow doctors and scientists to research the articles relevant to Covid-19 more accurately [15].  

The ‘Data’ and privacy behind it        

Quite accurately, Time magazine highlights that “only when people are assured of privacy can algorithms help to navigate the next big hurdle” [16]. Assessing the privacy aspect of technology that governments want to use in response to the pandemic is just as important as designing the technology itself. If people’s privacy is neglected, they will be more likely to refuse to use the technology, resulting in a likely inaccurate output. So, where are the biggest controversies? Let’s divide it into the ‘privacy of now’ and ‘privacy of tomorrow’.

‘Privacy of now’

If Covid-19 showed us anything, it is that time is not on anybody’s side. That is why privacy concerns may be more difficult to be properly addressed when human lives are at stake. Perhaps a similar argument was used during a recent call between European telecom executives and the EU’s Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Thierry Breton. The Commissioner defends an initiative [17] for the telecom companies (including Orange and Deutsche Telekom) to share “anonymised mobile metadata to help analysing the patterns of diffusion of the coronavirus.” [18] It comes as no surprise that the idea has its opponents [19], who suggest that anonymization is dubious [20] and that governments might be asking for ‘too much data’ for the sake of public good. In response to Mr. Brenton’s initiative, the European Data Protection Supervisor laid out several core principles to remember when using intrusive measures during crises. Among those are transparency, appropriate anonymization, and retention that should not exceed more that is needed to track the pandemic. Refreshingly, the EDP Supervisor underlined that “data protection rules currently in force in Europe are flexible enough to allow for various measures taken in the fight against pandemics.” [21]

‘Privacy of tomorrow’

On the other side of the ‘privacy vs Big Data’ spectrum is the fear that measures adopted during the crisis will be difficult to erase after [22]. The Wired, among others, warns that “the impulse to harness data for good should not be a license to conduct risky experiments that sacrifice privacy and civil liberties” [23]. Alarmingly, we are seeing the first examples. For instance, Slovenia was recently only a step away from introducing full-time surveillance powers to its police [24] and Israel is using its citizen’s data by method’s “originally intended for counterterrorism operations”[25]. Once the pandemic is contained, whenever this might be, providing checks and balances to state surveillance will be of utmost importance. 

Conclusion – trust, but verify

Even the strongest opponents of Big Data seem to confirm that “mapping how populations move between locations has proved invaluable in tracking and responding to epidemics” [26]. Without Big Data analytics, governments would likely have a tough time tracking the virus accurately, which is fundamental to understanding where it is going and how we stop it. And Big Data during Covid-19is not just about tracking, it is also about optimizing supply chain management and even supporting academics. So, does privacy stand in the way? Not necessarily. Politico notices that there is a “tricky balance to strike between using technology to help tackle health crises and safeguarding privacy” [27]but that does not mean it is impossible. For example, the EU is looking for options to introduce one tracing app designed for all Member States, instead of each one using their own. This would allow the EDP to monitor such technology more effectively and to be able to provide first-hand guidance on the GDPR compliance [28]. Similar proposals could guide the implementation of Big Data in a more privacy-friendly manner. Tech Crunch concludes this rather accurately by reminding us that whenever applying technology to human problems, it is “important to keep expectations in line with reality” [29]. In this case, it means not relying too much on technology when the world needs humanity the most, but also not hiding behind the ‘privacy wall’ just for the sake of argument in times of great public risk.  

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/13/coronavirus-world-map-which-countries-have-the-most-cases-and-deaths

[2] https://www.techuk.org/insights/news/item/17187-how-taiwan-used-tech-to-fight-covid-19

[3] ‘The Vital Role Of Big Data In The Fight Against Coronavirus’, Forbes, 9 April 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/04/09/the-vital-role-of-big-data-in-the-fight-against-coronavirus/#72358a0c3806

[4] ‘Tracking coronavirus: big data and the challenge to privacy’, Financial Times, 8 April 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/7cfad020-78c4-11ea-9840-1b8019d9a987

[5] ‘American Dossier: Your life on the Internet’ (2014) Guy Philbin, Robert, Morris University https://iacis.org/iis/2014/27_iis_2014_149-161.pdf

[6] ‘Tracking coronavirus: big data and the challenge to privacy’, Financial Times, 8 April 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/7cfad020-78c4-11ea-9840-1b8019d9a987

[7] https://hbr.org/2020/04/fighting-coronavirus-with-big-data)

[8] https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/10/coronavirus-pandemic-surveillance-privacy-big-data/

[9] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/21/coronavirus-map-which-countries-have-the-most-cases-and-deaths-covid-19

[10] https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/26/ai-and-big-data-wont-work-miracles-in-the-fight-against-coronavirus/

[11] https://fsi.stanford.edu/news/how-taiwan-used-big-data-transparency-central-command-protect-its-people-coronavirus)

[12] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52189551

[13] https://www.mumc.nl/actueel/onze-verhalen/coronavirus-te-lijf-met-big-data

[14] https://pages.semanticscholar.org/coronavirus-research

[15] https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/06/eu-privacy-experts-push-a-decentralized-approach-to-covid-19-contacts-tracing/

[16] https://time.com/5805622/coronavirus-pandemic-technology/

[17] https://www.politico.eu/article/european-commission-mobile-phone-data-thierry-breton-coronavirus-covid19/

[18] https://www.euractiv.com/section/data-protection/news/eus-breton-defends-covid-19-telecoms-data-acquisition-plans/

[19] ‘Tracking coronavirus: big data and the challenge to privacy’, Financial Times, 8 April 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/7cfad020-78c4-11ea-9840-1b8019d9a987

[20] https://www.wired.com/story/big-data-could-undermine-the-covid-19-response/

[21] Official EDPS comment on Covid 19, https://edps.europa.eu/sites/edp/files/publication/20-03-25_edps_comments_concerning_covid-19_monitoring_of_spread_en.pdf

[22] ‘Tracking coronavirus: big data and the challenge to privacy’, Financial Times, 8 April 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/7cfad020-78c4-11ea-9840-1b8019d9a987

[23] https://www.wired.com/story/big-data-could-undermine-the-covid-19-response/

[24] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52135402

[25] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/technology/coronavirus-surveillance-tracking-privacy.html

[26] https://www.ft.com/content/7cfad020-78c4-11ea-9840-1b8019d9a987

[27] https://www.politico.eu/article/european-commission-mobile-phone-data-thierry-breton-coronavirus-covid19/

[28] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52189551

[29] https://techcrunch.com/2020/03/26/ai-and-big-data-wont-work-miracles-in-the-fight-against-coronavirus/