How digital surveillance in virus fight watches you more closely than any GPS

Average phone has 14 sensors collecting data on its owner’s ‘micro-environment,’ says systems engineer whose firm is helping the Israeli government

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Israelis visit the beach in Tel Aviv despite government orders to avoid public gatherings due to the spread of the new coronavirus, March 21, 2020.  (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Israelis visit the beach in Tel Aviv despite government orders to avoid public gatherings due to the spread of the new coronavirus, March 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Coronavirus phone tracking doesn’t just tell governments more or less where their citizens are, but can also show the phone owners’ “micro-environment” and provide a treasure trove of information about their physical surroundings, a systems engineer behind key technology being used in the battle against the spread of coronavirus has revealed.

Ori Shaashua of Herzliya-based Neura told The Times of Israel that while many people assume that that tracking is all about GPS information, this is just the tip of the iceberg. His company processes all kinds of other complex data that cellphones — unbeknownst to most of their users — are constantly gathering.

“The data we analyze is about the micro-environment a person is in,” said Shaashua, vice president for product at Neura, explaining that the average phone has 14 sensors that provide information about motion, acceleration, light, and other aspects of a person’s physical surroundings.

He said that Neura is working with health organizations in several countries, and “helping” the government in Israel, though he agreed only to discuss his company’s work in general terms without going into the specifics of its role in Israel.

Israel last Wednesday introduced the use of digital tech, including phone-tracking, to monitor the movements of everyone in the country, in order to warn them if they have been in unwitting extensive proximate contact with a virus carrier and should go into self-quarantine. The unprecedented use of such intrusive surveillance was introduced under emergency regulations, without parliamentary oversight because the relevant Knesset committee had not concluded its deliberations on the matter. The High Court has said the surveillance must stop on Tuesday unless such oversight is in place.

Ori Shaashua, vice president for product at Neura, smartphone tracking technology experts (Courtesy)

The accuracy of phone tracking for coronavirus cases is causing widespread puzzlement. There is confusion as to how it is so precise when GPS location functions on smartphones are often inexact, causing people to miss a turning with Waze or order a Gett ride to the wrong address.

Shaashua said that his company holds the answer to that bafflement. Its processes build a highly accurate picture of exactly where an infected person has been. It uses precise levels of ambient light and other characteristics of the environment, along with information like what WiFi networks and Bluetooth devices were available at what signal strength, regardless of whether or not the person in question was connected. Motion sensors are a giveaway if people were in the same car or on the same bus or train.

Neura’s algorithms process the cellphone information collected by health organizations and determine who else was in the identical setting — something that can normally be determined even if a phone was in a pocket or a bag. When there is a match, authorities see it on their systems, and can choose to place that person in quarantine.

“We are finders of needles in haystacks,” said Shaashua, whose technology is normally used by companies that want artificial intelligence to improve customer relations.

Shaashua said that the success of the coronavirus fight in Taiwan was testament to this kind of technology — but refused to confirm or deny that his company was involved.

“Our role is to determine proximity,” Shaashua stated. “Let’s take an example. There was an incident in a mall in Raanana, and thousands of people were put in quarantine, because it was not known who was in proximity. If this happens in a hospital or police station or any other essential workforce, this starts a domino effect. This is something we help with.”

Illustrative: A youth checks his cellphone (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

With Neura’s technology, only people who were in the same part of the same mall would end up in quarantine, and if a doctor is found to have coronavirus, even colleagues on the same ward may not need to be quarantined if they didn’t cross paths in the same “micro-environment.”

Asked about privacy concerns, Shaashua was able to answer with respect to Neura (rather than those who hire its services). He said his company knows nothing about the people whose smartphone data it analyzes, not even their names or phone numbers. Governments tell the company who has the coronavirus by flagging up their phone with an “anonymized token,” and a similar token is used by Neura to identify the phones of people who may need to be quarantined.

He said that this same “anonymized” data is setting the tone of what national leaders are saying to their citizens. Neura takes the raw data and gives authorities a picture of how citizens have been behaving — how much they have been moving around, to what extent they are gathering and in what scale of crowd, and what kind of environments they are in. It can even provide statistics on how far people are staying from others, to determine how well social distancing rules are being observed.

Data that Neura processes is proving useful not only to government health ministries and health organizations that are sending people in to quarantine, but also to speechwriters for decision-makers, he indicated, with the messaging delivered by leaders seen by the public on evening newscasts and elsewhere potentially guided by the picture of national behavior gathered from the day’s cellphone data.

“It helps decision makers to understand what messaging works and what messaging doesn’t,” he said, adding that it can be used far beyond leaders’ speeches, in all aspects of the public campaign.

In a state that uses tracking, if a leader rebukes people for going to beaches and parks it won’t be based photographs or social media reports, but rather based on data from phones that recognize beach-like or park-like environments, Shaashua said.

A man wearing a face mask for fear of the coronavirus walks past a homeless person near a shuttered shopping mall in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In Israel, several leaders have made comments on the public’s behavior. Last week President Reuven Rivlin gave a special address saying: “I hear that our beaches and hiking trails are bursting. The danger is real. Let me ask you again to follow the instructions regarding distancing, and to keep away from gatherings.” Two days later Itamar Grotto, the deputy director-general of the Health Ministry said there had been a change in public attitudes.

Shaashua thinks that detailed phone data is essential in fighting the coronavirus because leaders need the maximum possible insight into the thoughts of citizens when asking them to do something that is against human nature — keeping away from one another — and there is no sense of immediate satisfaction. “Like losing weight, where an individual sees no immediate feedback, it’s difficult to drive behavior change in the population,” he said. “It’s a change of mindset that needs to be made and you cannot change the mindset of something you do not understand.”

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