The essential Ben Thompson on isolation and quarantine

…while I have written about Taiwan’s use of cellphone-enforced quarantines for recent travelers and close contacts of those infected, I should also note that every single positive infection — symptomatic or not — is isolated away from their home and family. That is also the case in South Korea, and while it was the case for Singaporean citizens, it was not the case for migrant workers, which is a major reason why the virus has exploded in recent weeks.

Here’s the thing, though: isolating people is hard. It would be very controversial. It would require overbearing police powers that people in the West are intrinsically allergic to. Politicians that instituted such a policy would be very unpopular. It is so much easier to let tech companies build a potential magic bullet, and then demand they let government use it; most people wouldn’t know or wouldn’t care, which appears to matter more than whether or not the approach would actually work (or, to put it another way, it appears that the French government sees privacy as a club with which to beat tech companies, not a non-negotiable principle their citizens demand).

So that is why I have changed my mind: Western governments are not willing to take actions that we know work because it would be unpopular and controversial (indeed, the fact that central quarantine is so clearly a violation of liberties is arguably a benefit, because there is no way people would tolerate it once the crisis is over). And, on the flipside, that makes digital surveillance too dangerous to build. Politicians would rather leverage tech companies to violate liberty on the sly, and tech companies, once they have the capability, are all too willing to offload the responsibility of using it wisely to whatever government entity is willing to give them cover. There just isn’t much evidence that either side is willing to make hard choices.

That is from Ben’s Stratechery email newsletter, gated but you can pay to get it.  There is currently the risk that “test and trace” becomes for the Left what “chloroquine” has been for Trump and parts of the political right — namely a way to make otherwise unpalatable plans sound as if they have hope for more than “develop herd immunity and bankrupt the economy in the process.”

To be clear, I fully favor “test and trace,” and I’ve worked hard to help fund some of it.  That said, I wonder if we will anytime soon reach the point where it is a game changer.  So when people argue we should not reopen the economy until “test and trace” is in place, I increasingly see that as a kind of emotive declaration that others do not care enough about human lives (possibly true!), rather than an actual piece of advice.


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