“In public health, we can’t do anything without surveillance. That’s where public health begins.”
-David Satcher, MD, PhD, U.S. Surgeon General, 1998-2002
Media outlets reported this week that representatives from Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple are meeting with members of the White House to brainstorm about ways in which the “Big Four”, can leverage the consumer information they possess to help in the war against COVID–19. Specifically, the government proposes to combine artificial intelligence with geolocation data collected from consumers’ smartphones and other devices to track the movement of individuals. Having knowledge about a population’s movement can help predict the future spread of the virus as well as pinpoint locations where an outbreak might be most severe.
The collaboration with these companies is noteworthy given the increasing and often hostile scrutiny by Congress and privacy advocates who demand increased oversight of the information giants. However, this is an unprecedented time of (hopefully temporary) self-isolation, plummeting financial markets, decimation of industries, shuttering of small businesses, and exacerbated food insecurity for the poor.
The value of cell-phone data in tracking, predicting, and understanding disease has been studied by various academics. In 2015, researchers from Harvard University and Princeton University published a study (Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, 2015) in which cellphone data for more than 15 million users in Kenya was evaluated to determine whether movement around the country could predict the seasonal spread of rubella. CLICK HERE TO KEEP READING.