Can Our Phones Stop a Pandemic?

Can Our Phones Stop a Pandemic?

Shira: What are effective projects to use phone data in the pandemic, without invading people’s privacy?

Natasha: The government tracking app in Singapore seems like a balanced idea. People can give it access to Bluetooth, and it logs every phone you come into contact with. If you develop the virus, health authorities get a record of your phone data so they can contact owners of the other phones. But people in Singapore will not see that data about others.

Health agencies in Singapore and South Korea also have posted information publicly, often in stunning detail, about the routes people took before they tested positive.

Should we even care about privacy in an emergency like this?

Natasha: We are talking about pervasive surveillance that could be used as a new means of social control to restrict people’s movements or stigmatize, isolate or exile people later.

During national emergencies, the delicate balance between public safety and personal privacy tends to shift toward government surveillance. But there still need to be limits on data collection and use, and independent oversight.

OK, grade this idea on the useful and creepy scales: Google and Facebook are providing data to health researchers to track people’s movements.

Jen: This could be helpful for epidemiologists modeling transmission of the virus, and the effects of social distancing. But it isn’t remotely a magic bullet.

As for creepiness: It’s no worse than Google using the same data to tell you when nearby stores are busy. In this case, information provided to the public is extremely limited. (Here’s an example of Google’s public data.)

How about public databases of who in our neighborhood has tested positive for coronavirus?

Jen: The virus is everywhere. Is it in your neighborhood? Yes!

If you’re revealing infected people at a granular level, it could be easy to identify them. It seems better to have a system that notifies people who may have been near the patient, but doesn’t tell them where they encountered the person. There are discussions now about how best to do this.

Does this debate over privacy and public health offer any broad lessons about technology in our lives?

Natasha: To Silicon Valley, everything looks like it can be solved with their prevailing tech — tracking people, predicting their behavior and sorting them into groups to treat them differently. But surveillance can’t solve everything!

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Hilda Namm isn’t the typical bat mitzvah girl. Most people are 13 when they celebrate this Jewish rite of passage. Hilda is 94, and escaped with her family from Germany during World War II.

She had been practicing for months to read a portion of the Torah in front of family and the friends she’s made in the decades she’s attended Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, Calif.

Then the coronavirus interrupted life. Hilda, who had barely used the internet before, moved her bat mitzvah online.

Last Saturday, her daughter, Evelyn Namm, went over to Hilda’s house with her laptop. From Hilda’s sofa, the pair hopped on Facebook with 50 or so others.

Rabbi Stacy Friedman opened with prayers for health care workers, people stocking grocery shelves and others in harm’s way. When the time came for Hilda to read from the Torah, Cantor David Margules streamed a digital image of the pages on his phone, sharing it virtually with everyone gathered.

When Hilda finished, Cantor Margules asked everyone to wish her well. There was a cascade of people, in tinny murmurs and more distinct voices, shouting, “Mazel tov, Hilda!” into their webcams. I watched from my sofa in New York City, and it made my weekend.

On Wednesday, Hilda and Evelyn got together to celebrate Passover. A friend dropped off food for the two of them. I asked why Hilda wanted to have a bat mitzvah after all these years. “I guess she finally wanted to become a woman,” her daughter joked. “I’ve been a woman all my life,” Hilda shot back.


  • Coronavirus conspiracy theories take a dark turn: A false idea linking the spread of the coronavirus to 5G wireless technology has spurred more than 100 incidents of arson and harassment in Britain this month, as my colleagues Adam Satariano and Davey Alba report.

  • “Let robots do the job.” Efforts to keep employees separated to prevent the spread of illness could prompt businesses to speed up projects to automate customer service centers, recycling facilities, grocery stores and other workplaces, Times reporters Michael Corkery and David Gelles write. That could make it harder for people to find jobs when the coronavirus crisis eases.

  • Buying grapes feels like winning the lottery. Online grocery shopping is no longer a niche habit in this pandemic, and it’s tough for shoppers to find a delivery window. Bloomberg News writes that people are swapping tips on Reddit about how to land a delivery spot, downloading multiple apps and refreshing order pages in the middle of night.

  • The frozen beef is wise: The Wall Street Journal reports on the Twitter account of Steak-umm, the freezer-case steak sandwich company that is dispensing comfort and advice about what coronavirus information to trust. Also, so many great meat puns.

Bagpipe tunes plus Bhangra dancing in the Yukon. An unusual but amazing combo.


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