As Governments Rush to Track Coronavirus, Honduras May Offer a Privacy-First Model
A blockchain startup working in Honduras may show world governments how to limit surveillance overreach while still fighting the deadly coronavirus.
The coronavirus crisis will certainly have lasting impacts, but some measures may prove less harmful than others.
While countries like Israel and China implement coronavirus emergency measures that digitally track civilian location data and health records, an entrepreneur in Honduras developed a blockchain-powered equivalent with an acute focus on privacy.
The bootstrapped startup Emerge is working with the Inter-American Development Bank, the tech company Penta Network and the Emergency Response Unit of the Honduran government to launch an app this week called Civitas. This software program will associate people’s government ID numbers with unique blockchain records they can use for telemedicine and permits to leave the house on specific errands. Roughly 3.2 million people are currently living in lockdown-affected areas of Honduras.
“It’s to better manage how people who are experiencing symptoms circulate,” said Emerge CEO Lucia Gallardo. “The last digits on your ID number determines which days you circulate.”
Just like in Israel, Hondurans who live in lockdown areas can be fined or face criminal charges if they violate quarantine protocols, she said. In the capital city, Tegucigalpa, Gallardo said people are only allowed to leave their homes at designated times or for specific tasks. There are time slots each week, such as Monday and Wednesday from 7-9 a.m., when people in each category are allowed to shop for groceries or go out without a permit. Otherwise, civilians require a permit for outdoor errands like visiting the health care clinic.
So the Emerge team is rolling out Civitas this week to roughly 25,000 Hondurans, then quickly expanding to all 18 regions of the country with confirmed cases.
If someone feels ill, they will engage with health care specialists from the National University of Honduras to determine if the symptoms could be related to the coronavirus. People with such cases are directed to facilities that specialize in treating the virus, to reduce exposure among vulnerable populations in other hospitals.
“The health center validates the permit that proves they were assigned to this health clinic,” Gallardo said. “Each time they go to the clinic, if they have to go more than once, is recorded and it’s all tied to the [Civitas] ID. It’s not a full history of the person’s life. It’s the history since they started the telemedicine file.”
The mobile app’s blockchain records serve multiple functions in a region accused by critics of having a particularly corrupt public health care system.
The Civitas record cannot be easily altered nor denied, at least not electronically, so censorship resistance can help establish trust in public health care options. Even if you’re poor or from a vulnerable minority, this record shows when and where the user has the right to access care. Users who don’t get care won’t go unnoticed.
When doctors scan the app, they can see the symptoms and notes described via the telemedicine service, which streamlines care. The plan is to eventually include outdoor shopping schedules and other logistics as well, which is automated based on ID numbers and employment type. Most importantly, this data isn’t shared with agencies beyond the healthcare system.
“The government doesn't view the health records, it’s a patient record for the health care provider,” Gallardo said. “Police don’t get to see your profile. [On the permit] they just see a yes or no question about whether the person is allowed to be circulating at that time.”
If law enforcement wants to monitor who is breaking quarantine, they need to patrol neighborhoods. This app doesn’t track location data nor keep lasting records of social graphs. There’s no social credit scores, unlike the tracking programs in China or the program NSO Group is working on in Israel. Instead, Civitas is used for emergency alerts, telemedicine, verification and other similar functions.
“We can guarantee, probably, a phone per household but not a smartphone,” Gallardo said. “For those without [internet] connectivity, they can interact with the app via text messaging.”
The variety of emergency coronavirus programs raise legal questions in each jurisdiction, which offer lessons for countries still crystalizing their response plans.
The United Nations is relying heavily on the same Chinese technology companies known for censoring information about the coronavirus, like WeChat’s parent company Tencent, for emergency communications despite free speech concerns. However, from the perspective of eToro CEO Yoni Assia in Israel, at least surveillance programs are merely a public acknowledgement of existing government powers.
“People are naive to think governments weren’t doing that [mass surveillance] or having that capability before,” Assia said. “The only difference here is they want people to engage with that data to keep people safe.”
Both Emerge and the Israeli tech company NSO Group are in talks with several governments eager to implement national tracking programs to curtail the virus.
“It would require minimal adaptation to suit other countries, especially in emerging markets,” Gallardo said.
Google, in particular, owns a staggering amount of behavioral user data. There are other companies researching more privacy-forward coronavirus tracking models as well, according to Nym Technologies CEO Harry Halpin, although such efforts aren’t connected to any government and are still in a theoretical stage.
Privacy experts are concerned about the long-term implications of these programs. Yet, attorney Preston Byrne of Anderson Kill's technology group said there’s reason to believe Americans have legal protections other nations may not.
“With regard to cellphone location data specifically, in the U.S. citizens enjoy a substantial expectation of privacy in relation to their physical movements,” Byrne said.
With regards to subscriber data, like IP addresses and metadata in text messages or emails, Byrne added companies are “not free to provide these communications voluntarily to the government except in very limited circumstances including an emergency involving death or serious bodily injury.”
In short, Americans can generally choose which apps to use. American police can’t use mass surveillance to show up at someone’s house if a phone is turned off, as reportedly happened in Taiwan. Even in Israel’s case, courts promptly ruled on which organizations can access and collect data. Plus, Israel’s consumer-facing mobile app, called “Shield” in Hebrew, is open source so anyone can review it.
If the White House adopts a comparable software initiative, Americans have a right to choose their connectivity tools and advocate for open source apps. They can also protect their privacy rights in court, according to Byrne.
Back in Honduras, Gallardo argued technologists should design software programs to specifically do certain things and not allow other types of data collection. Rather than waiting for litigation to assert privacy rights, this can help prevent government overreach in the future.
“What might it look like if, later down the line, whether you’ve tested positive for coronavirus has an impact on how people view you?” she said. “When you’re designing inclusively, these are questions you’ve asked yourself from the beginning.”
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