Data Privacy During Pandemics: A Scorecard Approach for Evaluating the Privacy Implications of COVID-19 Mobile Phone Surveillance Programs

Public health officials around the world are struggling to respond to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. To contain the highly infectious disease, governments have turned to mobile phone surveillance programs to augment traditional public health interventions. These programs have been designed to track COVID-19 symptoms, map population movement, trace the contacts of infected persons, enforce quarantine orders, and authorize movement through health passes. Although these programs enable more-robust public health interventions, they also raise concerns that the privacy and civil liberties of users will be violated.

In this report, the authors evaluate the short- and long-term privacy harms associated with the use of these programs—including political, economic, and social harms. They consider whether two potentially competing goals can be achieved concurrently: (1) the use of mobile phones as public health surveillance tools to help manage COVID 19 and future public health crises, and (2) the protection of privacy and civil liberties.

To evaluate the privacy implications of COVID-19 mobile surveillance programs, the authors create a concise, transparent, and standardized privacy scorecard. They use this scorecard approach to evaluate 40 mobile phone surveillance programs from around the world. The results indicate that the privacy implications vary considerably across programs, even within programs designed to accomplish similar public health goals. The authors offer recommendations to U.S. federal, state, and local officials to implement COVID-19 surveillance programs that better protect privacy, especially that of vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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