Surveillance in a Pandemic: Preserving Civil Liberties

Apr 16, 2020

In this virtual briefing, we examine surveillance measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussion looks at the obstacles to effective contact tracing systems, and what principles should guide the government if it does choose to enact public health surveillance measures as part of its pandemic response. 

Some key takeaways include:

  • Surveillance is unlikely to provide much value in the United States until testing dramatically improves: Without a quick and robust testing system it will be impossible to create an effective contact tracing system, even with intensive surveillance measures.
  • Cell phone tracking faces significant technical hurdles: Measures currently being considered, such as the Apple and Google Bluetooth project, have a limited ability to accurately identify the types of contacts that pose a high risk of infection, which could lead to an ineffective system that generates false alarms and loses the public’s trust.
  • Surveillance programs must have guardrails: There are numerous limits that could be placed on any surveillance measures to protect civil liberties and prevent mission creep, such as prohibiting use other than for public health purposes and creating a timeline for deleting data.
  • There are lessons we can learn from other countries that are enacting a variety of surveillance measures. Some of those programs may be effective, but others appear more designed to facilitate draconian enforcement and support repressive regimes.

Show Notes

Jake Laperruque - Speaker

Michael Osterholm - Guest Speaker

Deborah Brown - Guest Speaker

Greg Nojeim - Guest Speaker

Watch the video of the briefing