TrackCorona - Coronavirus Tracker and Live Map; Ethics of Monetization of Personal Data

Yun, James, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Tian, Yuan, EN-Comp Science Dept, University of Virginia
Jacques, Richard, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

During the first half of 2020, humanity faced an unusually large onslaught of problems. In addition to the usual political, technical, and social problems expected of a modern society, we are in the midst of the deadliest pathogen in over a century. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has caused over a quarter-million deaths around the world, resulting in the disruption of governments, economies, and ways of life. For my technical capstone, I had originally planned on using natural language processing to determine privacy policy compliance with international regulation, specifically the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Given the rapidly deteriorating situation, however, I instead reached out to my former high school classmates to create TrackCorona, a coronavirus tracking web application. My STS research provides the motivation behind the discontinued research. Regulation like the GDPR is society’s direct, yet arguably untimely response to aggressive data collection practices in the pursuit of profits. Although verifying online personal privacy is important, the current public health crisis bears much greater consequence.
TrackCorona aims to attenuate this crisis by providing millions of people with accurate information about the ongoing pandemic. Guided by our mission to accessibly educate the public about COVID-19, the website provides visualizations like interactive maps and charts describing the geographic spread of the virus. In addition to the website, we publicly share the data we aggregate from over two dozen sources for use by developers and researchers from around the world. When we first started the project in February, we never expected to reach over two million users, be featured in dozens of news articles, and become an internationally recognized source of COVID-19 information. Although we had to deal with cyberattacks, seek funding, and scale under exponential user growth, it was exceedingly rewarding to develop an application with such an impact.
The problem of data privacy existed long before COVID-19. Over the past decade, regulators have struggled to keep up with the accelerating pace of innovation. Technology conglomerates like Google and Facebook are collecting user data and monetizing it in the form of targeted advertisements for billions of dollars every year. There has been a recent pushback against these aggressive data collection practices in the form of the GDPR, with some futurists even discussing the possibility of users monetizing their own data. Although enticing, one must consider the established incentive structure in the tripartite balance between companies, consumers, and regulators. This structure is analyzed using the STS frameworks of technological momentum, risk society, and actor-network theory to reach a strategy of how to make this balance equitable for all parties involved.
As governments scramble to find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, Apple and Google partnered to create a Bluetooth-enabled contact tracing app to notify users of potential exposure to someone with the virus. Governments are concerned about the app compromising user privacy, resulting in the companies to limit their initiatives to remain compliant. This situation introduces the difficult ethical question of whether privacy should be emphasized at the expense of public health. Although this question is outside the scope of this thesis, the same STS analysis can be applied to answer it. The intersection of technological and epidemiological issues will involve a careful and perhaps uncomfortable scrutiny of human values and ethics. Regardless, I hope that the readers of this thesis will live in a world without COVID-19 and learn about my team’s contributions to inform others about it.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
COVID-19, coronavirus, data monetization, tracker, GDPR, TrackCorona, technological momentum, risk society, actor-network theory

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Technical Advisor: Yuan Tian
STS Advisor: Richard Jacques
Technical Team Members: Bilguunzaya Battogtokh, Soukarya Ghosh, Austin Stout, James Yun

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