Japanese officials are about to test a cellphone-based tracking system in an attempt to combat future pandemics. It’s a bit like trying to solve the problem using good design, or with tricorders, just with much less civil liberty.
It’s basically an in-vivo experiment to see how effective such an alert system would be to prevent on-going infections in a pandemic situation. And it’s likely to be pretty potent: One of the issues in an out-of control infectious situation is that carriers don’t necessarily know if they’ve been exposed, and thus spread the disease further before developing symptoms. In such a situation, the location tracking would be a fabulous tool.
But if it’s a successful experiment, and the scheme takes steps towards being implemented nationally, I hope at some point someone raises the issues of personal privacy. Because what each phone user is effectively doing is carrying an ultra-precise tracking tag around, for the government’s benefit. It is indeed a powerful anti-pandemic measure, but at what price to civil liberty? Though the system would apparently be voluntary, according to government spokespersons, it’s likely that there’d be a large take-up because people care for their health. And then at some point, you just know, that ultra-precise location database is going to be used for other purposes.