Letter to the Editor: A student’s response to the “Coronavirus tracker” presented by Apple, Google and other IT companies

Will cell phone tracking extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic? Will we continue to use trackers to identify geographic areas for other, less deadly illnesses and diseases, like the flu and lice?

Across the globe, people are struggling to make sense of the uncertainty that has been presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. There appears to be no specific treatment or cure for this disease which has led to international quarantines and stay-at-home orders. Moreover, there is an ethical dilemma regarding the usage of hospital equipment such as masks and ventilators. This predicament raises questions like, “Will we provide medical attention on a first-come, first-serve basis, or will we distribute medical supplies based on the intensity of infection for each individual?” 

This ethical dilemma has been a source of great anxiety for people across the globe, and, as a result, we’ve been encouraged to reduce the spread of this disease by staying home and away from inessential travels. 

This also calls to attention the usage of cell phone tracking. IT companies like Google and Apple have been implementing location tracking systems for years, but they are rebranding what many might consider a breach of privacy as a way to showcase populations that may have been exposed to coronavirus. In addition, these companies have been able to hide full details about their extensive tracking methods in the fine print of long contract agreements. 

Now, it can be argued that, for the safety of civilians across the world facing a global pandemic, cellular tracking for the purpose of saving lives is ethical. However, the real issue is not that cell phones are being used to track coronavirus outbreaks; instead, the issue resides within the potential consequences that come along with advanced tracking technology. 

Primarily, we need to ask ourselves how ethical it is for the government and other companies to track us – and to what this is acceptable. This is an ethical matter of privacy and safety. For example, the plethora of data that large companies like Google and Apple have on individuals in the United States and around the world is absurdly significant. These companies – among others – are able to build profiles for each and every one of us based on our search history and  other information we put out on the internet. Now, imagine if someone was able to hack these databases. Even worse, imagine if these companies sold your personal data to other companies? Oh wait, some have already done that. How else do you think you get advertisements based on your interests and location?

Although cellular tracking during the coronavirus pandemic has its benefits, there are still many ethics questions that are left unanswered. For example, to what extent will cellular tracking be used for, and how can we protect our privacy during an era in which our every move seems to be tracked?

This letter is written by Zella Sahar, a first-year student at the University of Minnesota. 

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.