“We are all in this together.” This seems to be the mantra as we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not an aspiration, but rather is an affirmation. Individuals and organizations have an unprecedented opportunity to work toward a common goal, in ways that were unimaginable only a few weeks ago.

The global scale of this public health crisis means that the United States is learning from, and cooperating with, countries around the world. This includes producing and distributing essential medical supplies, working on vaccine development, and sharing large amounts of data to determine virus spread and how best to allocate resources to treat those who become infected.

This general level of cross-sector and international cooperation also should be applied to digital privacy protection. Contact tracing and social distance planning will require that data from digital devices increasingly will be requested by, or volunteered to, public health officials and policymakers at all levels of government. This increased demand for data was not envisioned as part of a large-scale government surveillance plan, so understandably, there is a sense of comfort for some, but unease in others.

The United States should look abroad for possible alternatives to the traditional approach that pits government against the private sector regarding digital privacy protection. For a view of what such an approach might look like, it is crucial to observe models from other countries that are trying something different. Exhibit A is Israel, which imposed mandatory self-quarantine requirements for citizens and non-citizens alike who were arriving at its borders. It also ordered all non-essential businesses to close nearly a month ago, while the U.S. has no such national requirement in place to date.

Notably, Israel also has taken advantage of its technological prowess to gather and disseminate relevant data to government officials, collected individually but used anonymously. Like the United States, Israel is one of the world’s leading nations for innovation. Both established and start-up tech companies in Israel are working 24/7 to develop ways to gather location data beyond relatively crude methods, such as cell tower tracking.

Israel has a unique lesson to offer the United States regarding how to stimulate workable technology approaches to COVID-19 that also reflect greater sensitivity to digital privacy concerns. A service called Hamgen (The Shield) is a joint effort of private-sector tech experts and Israel’s Health Ministry. With this cooperative development, The Shield devised a solution that would be beneficial to the Health Ministry while also respecting personal privacy protection. The location data from an individual’s smartphone is collected from the past 14 days, then matched with the whereabouts of others in the Health Ministry’s database. The result of that process is then available to the individual, notifying whether he or she has crossed paths with an infected user. If so, the protocol is a voluntary self-quarantine for 14 days and notification of this to the ministry.

Unlike the U.S., this approach is based on people opting-in rather than opting-out, providing their location data voluntarily, so that infected individuals are only traced with their knowledge and approval. The personal information and location data remain on personal smartphones rather than stored in a centralized cloud platform.

So far, The Shield has received broad and quick acceptance, with 1.5 million Israelis reportedly downloading the app within the first three days that it became available. About 50,000 users then discovered a territorial match with someone who has COVID-19.

Like social distancing and other measures that require massive public buy-in to achieve a necessary scale that may make a difference, it will take some time to determine how effective The Shield can be. Presumably, it could be made available to the United States and other countries if it yields some positive results in helping to flatten the curve.

In any event, the larger idea seems to be one that could immediately be beneficial. Public health agencies and tech companies of all sizes in the U.S. should follow Israel’s lead by working in concert to develop privacy-by-design approaches. This would emphasize that it still is possible to continue thinking about digital privacy protection even in these dire times while enabling the public health community to get better data snapshots regarding how fast and wide COVID-19 is spreading. After all, “We are all in this together.”

Stuart N. Brotman

Stuart N. Brotman is a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is based in its Science and Technology Innovation Program, focusing on digital privacy policy issues. 

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