It’s clear that digital technology will play a key role in helping to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, whether as a way of disseminating information, telecommuting, or of keeping people entertained during lockdowns. Less welcome is the use of advanced surveillance and tracking techniques to monitor the movements of people to see if they are obeying quarantine restrictions. Another obvious way to apply technology is to manage the key resources being used to tackle it. That’s what the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is doing:
The NHS is preparing to unveil a “data platform” which tracks the movement of critical staff and materials, giving ministers the first ever comprehensive view of the entire health system, Sky News can reveal.
Items tracked include the capacity of emergency departments; the number of calls to the NHS helpline; and the number and location of beds, ventilators and NHS staff. It is clearly crucially important to have a clear, real-time picture of all of these in order to manage this fast-moving disease as effectively as possible. The problem with this major new database and its associated dashboard is that the digital side of things is being handled by Palantir, which has become synonymous with high-tech government surveillance in both the US and further afield. Its move into analyzing health data is potentially concerning given the highly-personal nature of the information it will be handling. It is also likely to be the first of many such moves, rather than just a one-off.
NHSX, the NHS “innovation unit” managing the project, is well-aware of Palantir’s reputation and the worries its participation will engender. It is taking steps to head those off:
Despite the speed at which it has been forced to work, NHSX says it has taken full account of both data protection legislation and privacy concerns.
The system removes identifiers such as names and addresses in order to keep the data as anonymous as possible. NHSX has also committed to closing the data agreements and removing or destroying the data once the pandemic abates.
Although sensitive personal health data is used to inform the dashboard, it is stored by Public Health England, and only provided to Palantir in an aggregated form
Palantir, too, knows that people will be worried by its move into healthcare. It has issued its own “Best practices for using data during a crisis”, which concludes: “history has its eye on us”.
We must not blindly accept the mantra of “desperate times call for desperate measures,” but instead forge solutions that can survive a return to normalcy and not fundamentally alter our societal values. Any exceptional measures must be clearly justified by the facts and conditions of the moment but, also, in enacting them, build in mechanisms for rolling them back after the crisis and soberly evaluating the extent to which they were necessary and how we can do better next time. This is an emergency — perhaps the defining one of our age. In acting decisively to defeat this pandemic, we must do so in a way that we will recognize ourselves when it’s done.
Those are noble sentiments. Let’s hope the reality matches them.
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