Using Cellular Networks to Enforce Quarantines
This week we thought we will expand on the issue of quarantine enforcement which we touched upon in last’s week’s issue. All around the world governments are enacting quarantines and social distancing regulations in an attempt to control the spread of the pandemic, however, this raises a simple question of resources: How can any government hope to enforce such measures over huge populations and areas?
The emerging answers appear to revolve around the use of cellular phone tracking and applications to aid enforcement. In this recent Business Insider review, utilizing the top10VPN COVID-19 Digital rights tracker, authors review the various surveillance measures put in place by governments around the globe in order to fight the pandemic. A review of the solutions adopted shows three levels of cellular enforcement being tried:
- Population wide surveillance – Countries such as Israel, China, and South Korea have adopted sweeping measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, namely surveillance of all phones in the network for the purposes of identifying potential infections, gatherings, and quarantine violations. Use of this information varies between countries, with a common feature being the targeting of enforcement efforts and delivery of targeted messages (such as potential infection risk warnings, and alerts asking crowds to disperse). While this approach has proven quite successful as evidenced by low infection rates in countries which adopted it, there are ongoing legal battles in Israel and South Korea, with the legal framework and limits of such measures still under discussion.
- Limited surveillance – A varied list of countries including: Taiwan, Singapore, Turkey, and Australia have opted for a partial implementation – utilizing cellular tracking and data collection only a targeted number of citizens under quarantine orders. This approach usually relies on the installation of an app on targeted users’ devices and requires active cooperation from the targets. While this approach is much easier to adopt both technologically and legally, its success so far has been modest, and it seems clear that limiting the scope to voluntary measures may not be enough to deal with infection outbreaks.
- Anonymized data gathering – Most of the world’s most developed countries have a variety of privacy protection and regulatory obstacles limiting their ability to utilize cellular tracking for enforcement, as a result most of these countries have adopted very limited cellular enforcement measures relying on the collection of anonymized data to help target enforcement efforts. The US, the UK, Germany, and Belgium have limited their adoption so far to analysis of user mobility data to identify public gatherings and potential infections.
The use of cellular data for quarantine enforcement is still new and how to apply it and what limitations to place for its use is an ongoing discussion. While none dispute the success in countries which adopted more sweeping enforcement measures and the general trends appears to wider adoption of such measures, many countries are still formulating their approach and may not have the tools in place to act on their optimal set of measures.