The COVID-19 global pandemic has raised many issues at the intersection of law and psychology. One that is becoming a focus of debate is the tension between privacy and public health. Already, companies are using aggregate smartphone location data to assess whether residents are following stay-at-home orders. In some countries, like South Korea, smartphone apps alert authorities when quarantined residents leave their homes. Other countries, including Australia and several European nations, are developing apps that use location data to facilitate contact tracing. Singapore has already deployed such an app, called TraceTogether. Commercial products that could enable employers to track workers’ health or locations are also available. Employers and schools are considering using facial recognition software to implement new timekeeping practices, security protocols and exam-proctoring methods.
Issues related to digital privacy have been brewing for some time, and these COVID-19-related developments will only accelerate that trend. In Carpenter v. United States (2018), the U.S. Supreme Court held that, given the privacy interest individuals have in information about their physical location, authorities needed to obtain a warrant before seeking a week’s worth of location data from a cellular service provider as part of a criminal investigation. The court noted that cellphones have become “almost a ‘feature of human anatomy’” and that location data “provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’” But how these concerns will play out in the public health and surveillance context remains to be seen.