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Health vs. Privacy: How Other Countries Use Surveillance To Fight The Pandemic


Testing, contact tracing - we know they're necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19. And we know countries around the world are rolling out new tools to help, tools that track their citizens' movements. China has a mobile app that determines whether people can leave their apartments. Israel is mapping where people go using counterterrorism technology developed by its security forces. And in France, next week lawmakers will debate a state-supported app that would warn users if they've come into contact with anyone infected with the coronavirus. All of which raises a question - how much privacy are we sacrificing for the sake of our health?

Well, we've got international correspondents in all three places. Let's bring in Emily Feng in Beijing, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Welcome, welcome, welcome.


EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.


KELLY: Emily, I'm going to ask you to start because you're just back from a reporting trip to Wuhan, where, of course, the virus first emerged. What did you have to do to make that trip?

FENG: I just showed them that I was healthy. And to do that, I showed them this code. China's adopted this patchwork system of colored health codes which you download on your mobile phone. They're kind of like digital health certificates. And they turn green if you're healthy. You're cleared to work. You can travel. And red if you've been in direct contact with someone who's sick or you did get COVID. Mine right now is yellow, which means I should be under home quarantine in Beijing, which I am.

KELLY: Yellow because of your travel history because you were just in Wuhan?

FENG: To Wuhan, yes.

KELLY: OK. And so you're now under quarantine. What does that mean? Are you still being monitored in Beijing?

FENG: Yes. I'm now under official quarantine, which means that I have an electronic sensor on my front door. It notifies someone at my local neighborhood committee if I leave my apartment and open my door. And this local neighborhood committee is this very, very uniquely Chinese entity. It's kind of like a homeowner's association of busybodies who oversee residential disputes.

KELLY: (Laughter).

FENG: But now that we're in extraordinary times, they monitor travel and they enforce quarantines.

KELLY: Just to make sure we understand, you're saying there's a sensor on your actual door, and if you open it, the busybodies are alerted?

FENG: They get an alert on their mobile phone.

KELLY: Wow. OK. Daniel, let's hear about how this is working in Israel, where I understand they have just suspended police use of cellphone data to enforce quarantines. Why? What were they doing, and what were the concerns about it?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Well, they don't have the door sensors that you have in Beijing. But police were using cellphone location data to make sure that people were staying at home if they were ordered to quarantine. And this is not just people with the virus. People even suspected of coming in contact with the virus or even just people returning from abroad, all of them have to quarantine at home. And lawmakers here said this week, you know, police using this cellphone data is just too intrusive. And there isn't evidence that that many disobedient people are breaking their quarantine and leaving home. So now police are not using cellphone data. They're just doing the good old normal rounds, going from home to home to check.

KELLY: But there is technology in use I mentioned that's been developed by Israel's security services. What's that?

ESTRIN: Yeah. The domestic spy agency, the Shin Bet, they usually track Palestinian suspects. Now they are tracking Israeli cellphone location data. And then they're texting people if they crossed paths with someone who had the virus within the last 14 days. And so you get a text message on your phone and it says, you must go into quarantine. You may have just caught the virus.

KELLY: Wow. OK. Let's go to Europe and Eleanor there in Paris. It sounds like the app that is being considered there is somewhat similar to what Daniel just described. It would warn people if they've come into contact with anyone infected with the virus. Give us some detail on that and how the debate is unfolding where you are.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, absolutely, Mary Louise. So in France and in Europe, it's about tracking, you know, tracing people, contact tracing. But it's about privacy and anonymity, too. So they're not working on geolocalization but on Bluetooth. So it's not about where you've been but about who you may have come into close contact with for a certain amount of time. It works on codes and numbers, not people's identities. So if you - if someone did become infected, anyone who came close to that person would automatically receive an alert. But you wouldn't know who it was from. Also, there's a big emphasis on this being a voluntary thing and not showing identities.

I want to play you right now the European commissioner in charge of digital is Thierry Breton. This was him speaking in a radio interview this week in France.


THIERRY BRETON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: So he says, you know, geolocalization and tracking, it's out of the question. He says, Israel and South Korea may do it. Yes, they're democracies, but they're also countries in a state of war. And their citizens will accept things that we Europeans will never accept.

KELLY: And in terms of just your daily life there in Paris, Eleanor, you don't have door sensors, I guess, but you can't just walk outside the way you could have a few months ago either.

BEARDSLEY: No, you can't. You have to fill out a form with the purpose of your being out. And you have to put the time on it. And I was actually stopped by police yesterday evening when I was taking my walk. They check your papers. And you're also not allowed to go jogging during the daytime.

KELLY: All right. So let me turn you all to another question which is at the heart of this, which is, does this work? I mean, does this technology actually help stop the spread? Emily, you first again because China has been at this the longest. Do we know? Is there data showing one way or the other whether these apps are helping to keep numbers and spread of the virus down?

FENG: Well, domestic transmissions in China have been very low. Most new cases come from abroad. And these digital health certificates have helped the economy restart. But as I mentioned, these apps are imperfect. And to compensate, in reality, it's really humans on the ground who are knocking on doors and making calls.

KELLY: And, Daniel, how about in Israel?

ESTRIN: Well, there was a big privacy debate here about this cellphone tracking because, you know, it is being carried out by the Israeli equivalent of the FBI, which has spooked some people out. But the agency claims that it's working. They say hundreds of Israelis who they ordered into quarantine through these text messages ended up actually eventually testing positive for the virus. And I think a lot of people are on board with it because - maybe it's because it's a very obsessed country, obsessed with security here. You know, most Israelis serve in the army. Many of them even serve in military technology units. So they're pretty comfortable with this kind of thing.

KELLY: Let me turn back to Europe and ask you, Eleanor, just how do people in France feel about all this - about having their movements and their contacts potentially being tracked? I'm asking because Europe overall has such strong privacy laws.

BEARDSLEY: That's right. But France has had more than 21,000 deaths now. People are afraid, yet still they don't want their private data to be used. This - any kind of tracing app will be voted on in the French Parliament. Still, Mary Louise, it's a paradox. People give up their location to avoid a traffic jam, but they don't want to do it, you know, to avoid death. But I spoke with an expert today. He says, this is Europe's moment. If it doesn't come together now to assert its values of privacy and ethics in a kind of app, it will have lost the digital battle.

KELLY: Emily, I gave you first word. I'm going to give you the last one, too. What about in China? Do people in China accept the level of surveillance you're describing living with?

FENG: Yes because it means they can return more quickly to normal life. And to be honest, they have no choice in the matter. If you want to travel, if you want to work, you've got to buy in.

KELLY: Reporting there from Emily Feng in Beijing, Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem and Eleanor Beardsley in Paris. Thank you all.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, Mary Louise.

FENG: Thanks.

ESTRIN: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.