Israel needed a way to alert its citizens about their potential exposure to others infected with COVID-19.
A Ministry of Health–approved app called HaMagen (Hebrew for the shield) sends users relevant notifications when it detects that they may have crossed paths with an infected person. The notifications include the exact time and location of the flagged meeting, and the user reviews them for accuracy.
If a user rejects a notification, they can carry on as normal. If they confirm the notification, they are directed to the Ministry of Health’s website to receive next steps and to report their confirmed exposure.
HaMagen compares users’ GPS history with geographic data of patients from the Ministry of Health. The cross-check could slow the spread of the virus, alerting people of their possible contamination long before symptoms appear (if they do at all). Asymptomatic carriers can unknowingly spread the virus and undermine efforts to contain it.
So far, over 1.5 million people have voluntarily downloaded and are using the HaMagen app in Israel. Germany, Italy, Britain, Australia, and Chile have approached the country’s Ministry of Health out of interest in the app, said deputy director general Morris Dorfman earlier this month. Tel Aviv-based GlobeKeeper developed the app and will soon roll out its own version.
Israel’s success with HaMagen is another sliver in the larger question of how to balance public health concerns with individual privacy.
The Chinese government, for example, required its citizens to download similar software. The app told citizens whether they were allowed into public spaces or if they needed to self-isolate. It set a troubling precedent for automated social control because some of the data was sent to the police. Also, the classification process was opaque, leaving people bewildered when they were ordered to enter quarantine without an explanation.
Currently, Google and Facebook are considering analyzing their users’ collective movements to determine how the coronavirus is spreading over the US. While the data would remain anonymous, its use still raises questions of ethics surrounding government surveillance and the way that large tech companies are using user data.