Danielle Citron, a 2019 MacArthur Fellow, is a professor at Boston University School of Law. Geng Ngarmboonanant is a student at Yale Law School.
Early in the Trump presidency, senior officials pursued an “Extreme Vetting Initiative,” an automated system that would scour social media data to predict whether an immigrant would commit crimes. The project drew fire as soon as it became public: Computer scientists said such a predictive system was impossible, and lawyers said it would not only chill privacy and speech but also could serve as a “digital Muslim ban.” The idea was abandoned.
That cautionary tale shows us that public oversight of any expansion of surveillance is crucial, particularly during a national crisis. Last week, Politico reported that presidential adviser Jared Kushner is talking with health technology companies about creating a “national coronavirus surveillance system.” That system would provide a “near real-time view of where patients are seeking treatment and for what, and whether hospitals can accommodate them,” helping the government allocate resources and determine where to reopen the economy. The data collection would purportedly cover 80 percent of the United States. An aide to Kushner pushed back against the Politico article after it was published, calling it “completely false.”
We know that large-scale health monitoring is necessary and shows tremendous promise when accompanied by vigorous oversight. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs the National Syndromic Surveillance Program, a partnership among federal, state and local health departments that securely tracks patient symptoms in emergency departments, providing early warning of public health threats such as flu outbreaks, vaping-related lung disease and opioid abuse.
But a large-scale system hastily built from the ground up in the throes of a crisis, particularly one run directly out of the White House, warrants serious caution. Health data is among the most sensitive information about individuals. It can carry heavy social stigma (think of HIV/AIDS or mental health diagnoses) and reveal intimate preferences, habits and decisions, including those involving pregnancy. Health status should be used only as a method for social control — to restrict physical movements — if the public health payoff is substantial and if the new surveillance system is subject to exacting oversight.
Read the full piece at The Washington Post.