Analysing responses to Covid-19

person wearing mask in the dark looking at phone

Data can be essential and useful at various stages of a pandemic and public health emergency. It can also feed intelligence and policing, being highly useful for enforcement. Finally, it can be valuable for commercial exploitation. The challenge before us now is which of these do we prioritise in specific settings.

In the context of Covid-19, our understanding is that:

  • in early stages of dealing with the pandemic, quick and effective contact tracing is invaluable to curb the spread, therefore knowing who people interacted with and where (interaction, proximity, and location data)
  • in the delay phase, tracing is not the highest priority and instead social distancing is more valued, and data can be used to monitor, develop policy, and for authorities enforce (location data becomes the priority)
  • generally tracking the use of public health resources is useful to allocate resources effectively, e.g. where should ventilators and masks and test be deployed (this is mostly logistics and health data held by hospitals and other health providers)
  • in the later phases, contact tracing may again be valuable, as can the use of enforcement mechanisms (interaction, proximity, and location data).

Data and technologies play different roles at each of these stages. But different levels of data and types of technologies too; and different legal and technical safeguards as well may apply.

PI has been tracking the developments across the world and is trying to differentiate between the various forms of health surveillance, policing, commercial exploitation (and some attempts at legitimisation), and surveillance opportunism.

If governments and industry had been more attentive to legality, security, and privacy in the run up to this crisis, everyone could have more confidence in the deployment of new measures. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is thus difficult to separate ambition from necessary response; desirable graphing from social graphing; health surveillance from policing surveillance; health and safety from workplace surveillance.

22 Jul 2021
In January 2021, the Indian Health Ministry officially allowed Aadhaar-based authentication when creating a UHID for identification and authentication of beneficiaries for various health IT applications promoted by the Ministry. This enabled the Co-Win portal, which is used to book COVID-19
22 Jul 2020
It is said, better late than never. Some activists and academics, hesitantly, thought the old maxim could be applied to the Centre's micro-credit facility for street vendors – which was indisputably behindhand, in the wake of the coronavirus-triggered lockdown, announced on March 24. But, more than
Amid a chaotic rollout of the national vaccination plan, the Italian Federation of General Practitioners (FIMMG) and some regions in Italy are resorting to algorithms to more efficiently priorities who gets vaccinated against COVID-19. AlgorithmWatch documented the adoption of automated decision
05 Aug 2020
In early August, when the UK government announced it was purchasing 90-minute saliva-based COVID-19 tests called LamPORE and 5,000 lab-free machines to process them, supplied by DNANudge, clinical researchers were dismayed to find that there is no publicly available data about the accuracy or
29 Jul 2020
Questions have been raised about an irregular process by which the Trump administration awarded a $10.2 million dollar six-month contract to Pittsburgh-based TeleTracking Technologies. TeleTracking has traditionally sold software to help hospitals track patient status; under the new contract it is
28 Jul 2020
A growing number of companies - for example, San Mateo start-up Camio and AI startup Actuate, which uses machine learning to identify objects and events in surveillance footage - are repositioning themselves as providers of AI software that can track workplace compliance with covid safety rules such
01 Aug 2020
Professional sports teams are considering adopting facial recognition admissions systems to make stadiums as touchless for fans as possible as part of efforts to provide a safe environment during the pandemic. Both the Los Angeles Football Club and the New York Mets are trying the Clear app, made by
21 Jul 2020
The algorithm and mathematical model used to predict students’ grades by the International Baccalaureate programme, which was forced to cancel exams because of the pandemic, incorporated three elements: coursework, teachers’ predictions of their students’ exam grades, and “school context”, which was
30 Jul 2020
As part of efforts to make returning to campus safer, US universities are considering or implementing mandates requiring students to install exposure notification apps, quarantine enforcement programs, and other unproven new technologies, risking exacerbating existing inequalities in access to both
27 Jul 2020
A preliminary study finds that facial recognition algorithms struggle to identify people wearing masks. The study tested 89 commercial facial recognition algorithms, and the best had error rates between 5% and 50% in matching unmasked photos with photos of the same person wearing a digitally-applied
10 Aug 2020
Manchester-based VST Enterprises is developing a rapid COVID-19 testing kit intended to help restart stadium sporting events. The results of tests, which fans will take the day before the event they wish to attend and provide results within ten minutes, will be stored in VSTE’s V-Health Passport, a
22 Jul 2020
By mid-July, the UK’s contact tracing system was still failing to contact thousands of people in areas with England’s highest infection rates. In London, with the sixth-highest infection rate in England, only 47% of at-risk people were contacted; in partially locked-down Leicester, the rate was 65%

This satirical video is a critique of the UK government's reliance on 'technological solutionism' in the fight against Coronavirus and increasingly across public services more widely, and their willingness to then scapegoat ‘mutant algorithms’ when their hopes for technological panaceas inevitably fail.

16 Jul 2020
US epidemiologists are complaining that secrecy is interfering with public health efforts to curb the coronavirus. Beginning in April, California state and county health authorities have refused requests from scientists from Stanford University and several University of California campuses for
19 Jul 2020
Several of the Chinese companies producing personal protective equipment such as face masks were shown via undercover video footage to be using Uighur labour under a government labour transfer programme that pays regional subsidies for each worker taken in. The equipment is being shipped all over
30 Aug 2020
Human rights experts have accused the home secretary, Priti Patel, of ignoring legal guidance in an attempt to target child asylum seekers who cannot prove they are under 18. A letter from the Home Office, seen by the Observer, reveals that the government is putting pressure on social workers to