Enlisting Big Data in the Fight Against Coronavirus

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
April 9, 2020

Written Testimony of Professor Ryan Calo

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Cantwell, and Members of the Committee: I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to testify before this Committee regarding the promise and peril of using data analytics to combat the novel coronavirus. There can be little doubt that better access to and analysis of information will play a prominent role in addressing the ongoing pandemic. Yet even as we bring to bear the considerable ingenuity of our academic, public, and private institutions, my research into privacy and technology counsels a measure of humility and caution regarding the use of data analytics to address this crisis. In this testimony, I will address some of the ways people and institutions propose to use data analytics and other technology to respond to coronavirus. The first set of examples involves gaining a better understanding of the virus and its effects on American life. By and large I support these efforts; the value proposition is clear and the privacy harms less pronounced. The second set of examples involves the attempt to track the spread of COVID-19 at an individual level using mobile software applications (“apps”). I am more skeptical of this approach as I fear that it threatens privacy and civil liberties while doing little to address the pandemic. Finally, I conclude with the recommendation that, however we leverage data to fight this pandemic, policymakers limit use cases to the emergency itself, and not permit mission creep or downstream secondary uses that surprise the consumer.

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