Amos Toh is the senior researcher on artificial intelligence and human rights at Human Rights Watch.
The coronavirus pandemic has spurred interest in big data to track the spread of the fast-moving pathogen and to plan disease prevention efforts. But the urgent need to contain the outbreak shouldn't cloud thinking about big data's potential to do more harm than good.
Companies and governments worldwide are tapping the location data of millions of Internet and mobile phone users for clues about how the virus spreads and whether social distancing measures are working. These efforts analyze large data sets to uncover patterns in people's movements and behavior over the course of the pandemic.
As attractive as these projects might seem, companies and governments should ask whether they will deliver the public health benefits they promise.
Research on cell phone usage patterns casts doubt on the theory that call detail records are reliable for tracking people's movements, even at an aggregate level. These miscalculations illuminate a broader problem: Big data can obscure or misrepresent complex social realities, with dangerous consequences for both public health and human rights.
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