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Business, Society - Written by on Tuesday, July 14, 2009 22:46 - 4 Comments

Privacy or Health? A choice you may have to make

With over 50,000 confirmed cases of swine flu reported in North America, it is undeniable that this virus is an epidemic. Similar to the SARS scare that occurred a few years ago, this virus has generated discussion about the possibilities of drug resistant strains and widespread sickness. Although the swine flu virus has not yet mutated and remains non-lethal in the majority of cases, it is apparent that in the case of a more serious virus, we would be ill equipped to fight it.

The main problem is that people who contract such viruses are contagious before their symptoms become visible, making it extremely difficult to determine that a person has caught the virus before they transmit it to others. The Japanese government has recognized this issue as one of the main challenges in fighting potential pandemic and has planned an experiment to see if Japan’s advanced internet and cellular phone infrastructure can be used to help address the issue. As elementary schools are one of the main breeding grounds for contagious illness, the experiment will begin by giving each of the students at a particular elementary school a GPS-enabled cell phone and ‘infecting’ a few children with a fictitious virus. The students’ movements will then be tracked, and the parents of any children that have come in contact with infected students will be advised to take their child to a doctor so that students that do contract the virus can be diagnosed much faster, thus preventing them from spreading the virus any further. Due to the exponential nature in which viruses spread, even a small decrease in the amount of people infected by each carrier of the virus will have a major impact.

Although using GPS to track interactions can only inform people of possible infection and cannot predict the actual spreading of the virus, this strategy has the potential to be effective in slowing the spread of highly contagious viruses that warrant such extreme action. Equipped with the information that they have been exposed to such a virus, people can check with their doctors to ensure that if they have contracted the virus, they will be treated and not spread it further. Whether the health system could handle an influx of checkups in such a situation is a concern, but it is certainly better than dealing with a full-blown outbreak.

Despite the potential that this experiment has to lead to a strategy that could drastically reduce the spreading of an epidemic, the idea that the government could track people’s locations has caused great concern and cries of “Big Brother”. Privacy is a concern that many have when it comes to the internet, but most often, the discussions of privacy revolve around the danger of predators and the concern that corporations are gaining too much personal information about consumers. When it comes to fighting a serious epidemic though, the consequences of inaction are much greater and location information could be the best defence we have.


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Jul 15, 2009 5:00

Governments tracking citizens without built-in safeguards is not a good idead , even to prevent pandemics.
The system will be open to abuse aka George W. Bush
Unless the scientific evidence is compelling and there are built-in safeguards into the system, the idea is a non-starter.
Universal healthcare is also a must, no use telling people they are infected if you cannot then treat them

Web Media Daily – July 15, 2009
Jul 15, 2009 8:00

[...] Privacy or Health? A choice you may have to make… Wikinomics [...]

Catherine Thorn
Jul 15, 2009 11:32

Thanks for your comments. You raise some interesting points. I agree that there would definitely need to be safeguards in place should such a system be implemented. The information of everyone’s location would need to be used only for the purposes of pandemic prevention and not disclosed to any other parties than those monitoring the spread of the pandemic. In addition, as I had mentioned, since this kind of measure is extreme, it would need to be implemented only in the case of a severe threat and discontinued once the threat is over.

The question of who should be the one to declare the threat severe is an interesting one. I would suggest that since this is a privacy issue, citizens would have to give their consent and thus, they should be allowed to decide upon the severity of the pandemic threat. This could be achieved by only tracking citizens that volunteer to be tracked and only tracking citizens at all if enough volunteer. If the threat is severe enough to require extreme measures, then most citizens will be worried enough to volunteer.

In response to your comment about providing scientific evidence that this method would be effective, that is what Japan is trying to do with the experiment. Of course, if the experiment shows the benefit to be minimal or non-existent, then tracking people would not be justified.

Even disgregarding the socialist argument for universal healthcare, it would definitely be beneficial in a pandemic situation since every additional person to contract the virus is an additional threat to everyone else’s health. Thus, if someone without the money to pay for healthcare contracts the virus, it is in society’s interest to get them better so that they do not infect more people. Unfortunately, universal healthcare is not available in many countries, and will not likely be anytime soon. Notifying people that they are possibly infected is still beneficial if even only a percentage of the people notified get checked and as a result, some are stopped from spreading the virus. The article that I provided a link to had a calculation illustrating this:

“If an infected person makes about three more people sick per day, and each newly infected person then makes another three people sick, on the 10th day about 60,000 people would catch the disease. If each sick person instead infected two people a day, on the 10th day about 1,500 people would get sick.”

Jul 19, 2009 3:32

No government has ever kept an epidemic under control by invading people’s privacy anywhere in the history of the earth. They come up with regular excuses to invade privacy, but always for their benefit not for yours and mine.

Swine flu is no exception, the WHO accept that swine flu is unstoppable. Your best bet is your own immune system. Immunization programs have been helpful for some diseases (e.g. smallpox) but privacy invasion is not a requirement for successful immunization (and indeed, it is likely to be a discouragement).

“Notifying people that they are possibly infected is still beneficial if even only a percentage of the people notified get checked and as a result, some are stopped from spreading the virus.”

Incorrect. Once the virus gets above critical transmission then a bit more or a bit less makes no difference because it ends up saturating the entire community. Only highly isolated people avoid exposure. The difference may be a few days longer or few days shorter to reach saturation.

Recently there was an equine flu outbreak in Australia and a full lockdown order was rapidly put in place with every horse being restricted from transport (except that the horse racing industry in New South Wales operates pretty much independently of the law so race horses were still being transported). Suffice to say that far stricter lockdown was achieved than ever could be done with humans.

The equine flu spread despite the lockdown. It also proved unstoppable and reached saturation within a month or so.

I’ll also point out that if any government seriously believed they could control outbreaks in this way, then germ warfare would become a viable option for them.

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