By Lizzie Devitt
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused policymakers around the world to consider how and when surveillance tools and personal data collection should be used in the name of public health and safety. On April 22, three Duke faculty members spoke to congressional staff about these issues in a virtual briefing organized by Duke in DC and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.
Sanford professors David Hoffman and David Schanzer were joined by their Law School colleague Shane Stansbury. The conversation was moderated by Inès Jordan-Zoob, T’19, analyst at BMNT and former Baldwin Scholar and vice president of the Cyber Club during her time at Duke.
The briefing addressed the reality that as the U.S. recovers from the initial shockwaves of the pandemic, policymakers will continue to confront the issue of how to properly achieve both privacy and public safety. Questions such as who may safely return to work and how another massive outbreak can be prevented help us determine how to strike that balance.
The briefing covered a myriad of critical questions including:
- What kind of personal data should be collected, and under what conditions?
- Do methods that have been employed elsewhere around the world violate core democratic values?
- Can tools be adapted for use in the United States so that they do not threaten privacy and civil liberties?
David Hoffman began the briefing by laying out the relevant policy issues, presenting some details on how other countries have tried to use technology to enhance contact tracing and quarantine enforcement.
“In a traditional privacy analysis you always look at what the purpose is and then ask what additional data and assumptions you need to be successful.”David Hoffman
China, for example, has transitioned its existing mass surveillance tools to assist in its COVID-19 suppression, containment, and mitigation efforts. Even Western democracies such as Israel and South Korea have turned to surveillance and personal data collection to track infection patterns and control movement of populations.
Professor Hoffman noted that, “in a traditional privacy analysis you always look at what the purpose is and then ask what additional data and assumptions you need to be successful.”
“Information we want isn’t in our control as a government. It is in the control of private companies.”Shane Stansbury
Professor Stansbury transitioned to a conversation about lessons learned from the 9/11 era regarding surveillance efforts. He specifically noted two parallel currents between then and our current response to COVID-19.
The first is that “we are facing a crisis of information,” and the second is that the “information we want isn’t in our control as a government. It is in the control of private companies,” noted Professor Stansbury.
David Schanzer closed the opening remarks by presenting a set of potential problems applying possible tech solutions in the U.S. and also laid out recommendations for what Congress should be doing. He framed these surveillance tools ultimately as social control mechanisms and that in the U.S. their use must be paired with strong precautionary measures. When talking about challenges to implementing a national surveillance system, Schanzer observed that compared to some other countries Americans are less compliant and more conditioned to challenge government mandates.