Cellphone epidemiology- Japan’s swine flu panopticon

mother, child and cellphoneIn response to the swine flu almost-epidemic, my government thoughtfully sent me a leaflet, advising me to steer clear of people sneezing and so on. The Japanese Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, however, appears to be approaching the problem from a more technological angle; this autumn, they’ll test a system that uses mobile phones to track the locations of citizens and inform them whether they’ve been in contact with a flu carrier:

The proposed system relies on mobile phone providers to constantly track the subjects’ geographical locations and keep chronological records of their movements in a database. When a person is labeled as “infected,” all the past location data in the database is analyzed to determine whether or not anyone came within close proximity to the infected individual.

The system will know, for example, whether or not you once boarded the same train or sat in the same movie theater as the infected individual, and it will send you a text message containing the details of the close encounter. The text messages will also provide instructions on specific measures to take in response.

The primary purpose of the test, which will involve about 2,000 volunteers in both urban and rural areas, is to verify the precision of GPS tracking technology, estimate the potential costs of operating such a system, and determine whether or not such a system can be put into practical use.

The first problem that leaps to mind here is that just one or two undiagnosed flu carriers loose in your city is going to throw a spanner in the works; those few errors will multiply exponentially over time.

Secondly – and channelling my tin-foil hat-wearing younger self for a moment – what a fantastically comprehensive way to monitor and control your population, should you decide you need (or want) to, and what a great excuse to coat the pill with. There’s a polical-dystopian technothriller just waiting to be written right there; just replace the word ‘infected’ with ‘subversive’ in the above quotes, and off you go. [via Technovelgy; image by kalandrakas]

3 thoughts on “Cellphone epidemiology- Japan’s swine flu panopticon”

  1. The U.S. National Nose Association is going to come out to protect your right to sneeze.

  2. Sometimes good ideas are actually bad ones. This is such an example. Yeah, it’s nice you want to monitor your citizens to be able to find out where infections are going, but this is a system that could be abused so badly as to violate individual freedom.

    But, whatever, the last 8 years pretty much taught us we’re allowed to do almost anything if we’re scared…

  3. Japan loves to keep track of everyone… having to notify the government whenever you change address is one example. The irony is that the bureaucracy is so huge and convoluted, no-one is actually paying attention to what you do.

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