AI is in the news and in policy discussions regarding COVID-19, both about ways to help fight the pandemic and in terms of ethical issues that policymakers should address. Michael Corkery and David Gelles in the NY Times article “Robots Welcome to Take Over, as Pandemic Accelerates Automation”, suggest that “social-distancing directives, which are likely to continue in some form after the crisis subsides, could prompt more industries to accelerate their use of automation.” An MIT Technology Review article by Genevieve Bell, “We need mass surveillance to fight covid-19—but it doesn’t have to be creepy” looks at the pros and cons of AI technology and if we now have the chance to “reinvent the way we collect and share personal data while protecting individual privacy.”

Public Health and Privacy Issues

Liza Lin and Timothy W. Martin in “How Coronavirus Is Eroding Privacy” write about how technology is being developed to track and monitor individuals for slowing the pandemic, but that this “raises concerns about government overreach.” Here is an excerpt from that WSJ article: “Governments worldwide are using digital surveillance technologies to track the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, raising concerns about the erosion of privacy. Many Asian governments are tracking people through their cellphones to identify those suspected of being infected with COVID-19, without prior consent. European countries are tracking citizens’ movements via telecommunications data that they claim conceals individuals’ identities; American officials are drawing cellphone location data from mobile advertising firms to monitor crowds, but not individuals. The biggest privacy debate concerns involuntary use of smartphones and other digital data to identify everyone with whom the infected had recent contact, then testing and quarantining at-risk individuals to halt the further spread of the disease. Public health officials say surveillance will be necessary in the months ahead, as quarantines are relaxed and the virus remains a threat while a vaccine is developed.

“In South Korea, investigators scan smartphone data to find within 10 minutes people who might have caught the coronavirus from someone they met. Israel has tapped its Shin Bet intelligence unit, usually focused on terrorism, to track down potential coronavirus patients through telecom data. One U.K. police force uses drones to monitor public areas, shaming residents who go out for a stroll.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is ushering in a new era of digital surveillance and rewiring the world’s sensibilities about data privacy. Governments are imposing new digital surveillance tools to track and monitor individuals. Many citizens have welcomed tracking technology intended to bolster defenses against the novel coronavirus. Yet some privacy advocates are wary, concerned that governments might not be inclined to unwind such practices after the health emergency has passed.

“Authorities in Asia, where the virus first emerged, have led the way. Many governments didn’t seek permission from individuals before tracking their cellphones to identify suspected coronavirus patients. South Korea, China and Taiwan, after initial outbreaks, chalked up early successes in flattening infection curves to their use of tracking programs.

“In Europe and the U.S., where privacy laws and expectations are more stringent, governments and companies are taking different approaches. European nations monitor citizen movement by tapping telecommunications data that they say conceals individuals’ identities.

American officials are drawing cellphone location data from mobile advertising firms to track the presence of crowds—but not individuals. Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google recently announced plans to launch a voluntary app that health officials can use to reverse-engineer sickened patients’ recent whereabouts—provided they agree to provide such information.”

Germany Changes Course on Contact Tracing App

Politico reports that “the German government announced today” (4/26) “that Berlin would adopt a ‘decentralized’ approach to a coronavirus contact-tracing app — now backing an approach championed by U.S. tech giants Apple and Google. ‘We will promote the use of a consistently decentralized software architecture for use in Germany,’ the country’s Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Twitter, echoing an interview in the Welt am Sonntag newspaper. Earlier this month, Google and Apple announced they would team up to unlock their smartphones’ Bluetooth capabilities to allow developers to build interoperable contact tracing apps. Germany is now abandoning a centralized approach spearheaded by the German-led Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project. Berlin’s U-turn comes after a group of six organizations on Friday urged Angela Merkel’s government to reassess plans for a smartphone app that traces potential coronavirus infections, warning that it does not do enough to protect user data.”

NSF Program on Fairness in Artificial Intelligence (FAI) in Collaboration with Amazon

A new National Science Foundation solicitation NSF 20-566 has been announced by the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering, Division of Information and Intelligent Systems, Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences.