Tracing COVID-19 cases with Google Timeline?

jim bell jdb10987 at
Sun Mar 15 23:46:22 PDT 2020

[partial quote follows]
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel has long been known for its use of technology to track the movements of Palestinian militants. Now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to use similar technology to stop the movement of the coronavirus.

Netanyahu’s Cabinet on Sunday authorized the Shin Bet security agency to use its phone-snooping tactics on coronavirus patients, an official confirmed, despite concerns from civil-liberties advocates that the practice would raise serious privacy issues. The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending an official announcement.

Netanyahu announced his plan in a televised address late Saturday, telling the nation that the drastic steps would protect the public’s health, though it would also “entail a certain degree of violation of privacy.”

Israel has identified more than 200 cases of the coronavirus. Based on interviews with these patients about their movements, health officials have put out public advisories ordering tens of thousands of people who may have come into contact with them into protective home quarantine.

The new plan would use mobile-phone tracking technology to give a far more precise history of an infected person’s movements before they were diagnosed and identify people who might have been exposed.

In his address, Netanyahu acknowledged the technology had never been used on civilians. But he said the unprecedented health threat posed by the virus justified its use. For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness.

“They are not minor measures. They entail a certain degree of violation of the privacy of those same people, who we will check to see whom they came into contact with while sick and what preceded that. This is an effective tool for locating the virus,” Netanyahu said.

The proposal sparked a heated debate over the use of sensitive security technology, who would have access to the information and what exactly would be done with it.

Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the liberal opposition party Meretz, said that tracking citizens “using databases and sophisticated technological means are liable to result in a severe violation of privacy and basic civil liberties.” He said any use of the technology must be supervised, with “clear rules” for the use of the information.

Netanyahu led a series of discussions Sunday with security and health officials to discuss the matter. Responding to privacy concerns, he said late Sunday he had ordered a number of changes in the plan, including reducing the scope of data that would be gathered and limiting the number of people who could see the information, to protect against misuse.
[end of partial quote]

    On Friday, February 21, 2020, 04:45:16 PM PST, jim bell <jdb10987 at> wrote:  
 I am surprised that when I do a Google search for 'COVID-19 "google timeline" ', I see essentially no results.

We all know now what COVID-19 (nCov, Coronavirus) is.  From the reports I see, this virus has the unusual characteristic of being very contageous for up to periods of weeks prior to a person's feeling symptoms.  That is presumably how a large fraction of a cruise ship became infected.  This is quite ominous.  If epidemiologists were to ask a patient, "tell us where and when you've been each minute over the last 15 days"  the vast majority of these victims wouldn't have a prayer of providing that information.  And even worse, finding the other people who were "in that AM/PM at 5:07-5:21 10 days ago" would be essentially impossible.   Or potentially dozens of other involved locations, over those 15 days.  

Before one of you accuses me of "advocating" the use of Google Timeline to track potential cases of COVID-19 by means of Google Timeline, I don't need to "advocate" it.  Rather, I simply point out that there are a lot of people out there scared of this virus, and probably be looking for a way to determine if their paths have crossed with a victim, even if that victim wasn't symptomatic for 1-2 weeks after the contact.  So at some point, I think there will be discussion of this possibility.   The data is already being collected, in all Android phones (is there an Apple equivalent?)  In principle, if a new infectee is identified, it would be technically possible to work backwards, figure out where he has been over the relevant period, and find anybody who was close to him during a multi-week period.  

One reason this could be important is that there may be a drug which might reduce (or, hopefully, eliminate) a person's contageousness if it taken during this pre-symptomatic period.   One possibility is an old anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, which I have mentioned before.  
  But if people only begin taking chloroquine when they begin exhibiting symptoms  of this new flu, that means that they will be spreading that virus for as much as two weeks, or even more.  In principle, hundreds of people could be infected, directly or indirectly, merely because there is no early warning.  

 Suppose you receive a text or email notification that you were in a small store, 5 days ago, with a person who just developed symptoms of COVID-19.  You MIGHT be infected.   So, you MIGHT want to take a chloroquine pill.  (The half-life of chloroquine is 45-55 days).  Or some other pill that could assist if taken long before symptoms were likely to appear.  Not only might you not get sick, maybe you'd be able to avoid transmitting the virus to many others.  (My speculation...)   And maybe you'll live, when you otherwise wouldn't.   

We Cypherpunks are SUPPOSED to be more concerned, than average, about the privacy and freedom implications of technologies.  What I have described, above, might be handled in a completely-voluntary fashion.  But, we want to ensure that this doesn't turn into a permanent form of tracking.  So we should debate the implications of all this, ideally before everyone else is talking about it.

I would be surprised if Google isn't already considering something like this.  They have much of the data to do so.   They might hesitate to announce such an idea, for fear that people would think this is some sort of generalized people-tracking system.  

              Jim Bell  
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