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.
The idea is to run an experiment in a school, which is a classic public location where pandemics can easily gain a foothold. The students of the chosen school will be given special cellphones with GPS tracking units built-in–these will track the students location on a per-minute basis, and store the data in a central server. By randomly designating particular students as early infected carriers, and analyzing their movements, the research team will be able to identify which other students were exposed–those children’s parents will receive an automated message to indicate they should take the child to a doctor.
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.