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Privacy Issues Related To COVID19 Contact Tracing Apps

By: Diksha | July 23,2020 |

4 min read

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Lockdowns in various nations due to the coronavirus pandemic are gradually being relaxed by governments across the world. However, efforts to reduce the spread of the virus are being intensified. One of the methods being used to curb the spread of the virus is contact tracing, which is the act of identifying those exposed to COVID-19 positive individuals.

Contact tracing has gone digital as tech companies are increasingly liaising with health workers to create contact tracing smartphone apps. These mobile applications work using Bluetooth signals called ‘chirps’. These chirps are picked up by nearby smartphones and are uploaded to a public database if a smartphone tests positive for the virus.

Once this happens, everyone in close contact with the infected individual receives a notification about possible exposure to the virus. Digital contact tracing, however, poses serious privacy concerns to individuals. A recent ExpressVPN survey has revealed that more than 7 in 10 Americans are concerned about privacy breaches via contact tracing applications.

Giving Up Privacy Rights For Public Health

There are several doubts about these contact tracing applications speeding up the end to the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the reason why public health officials in the U.S. are rejecting the tech approach for a manual one. Health officials are advocating for the hiring of manual contact tracers.

Contact tracing is highly beneficial to the prevention of the further spread of a virus. It proves to be more efficient when tests can be carried out swiftly on a population with low infection rates. The U.S. has a relatively high rate of infection and a snail-like level of testing.

The very idea of using contact tracing application started from countries in Asia like China, Singapore, and South Korea. These governments stretched privacy rights boundaries by performing mass surveillance. China, for instance, utilized these contact tracing apps to curb the movement of its citizens. The contact tracing app idea that facilitated mass infringement on privacy rights is now set to be adopted by the U.S.

Using contact tracing apps to stamp out COVID-19 sounds like a wonderful idea. However, there is still no proof that contact tracing apps will perform any better than manual contact tracing.

The Apple-Google API

Apple, in conjunction with Google, has proposed an application programming interface (API) for smartphone contact tracing. The API will serve users by alerting individuals who have been in close proximity with people that have tested positive to COVID-19. Both companies are not developing an application, freeing them of possible operational questions associated with the release of an app.

Many experts across tech and health have sounded reasons why contact tracing applications cannot work perfectly for the prevention of the coronavirus spread. For one, there’s the issue of false positives (reports of non-existent exposure). What if sensors pick up signals through surfaces like walls without real risk of exposure to the uninfected individual?

There’s also the issue of false negatives (people not being alerted after possible exposure). People sometimes leave their phones at home before venturing outside. Besides, not everyone in the U.S. uses smartphones (81% of Americans use smartphones). How then, will alerts be sent to those without the contact tracing app and individuals without smartphones?

Older people, who are at the highest risk of becoming casualties to the virus, are unlikely to download the contact tracing app.

Several individuals believe the tech approach proposed by the government will be used to breach privacy rights and provide a false sense of security to the population. This kind of situation could even lead to a potential fresh breakout because the government in a bid to assure citizens of quick eradication of the virus, might revive businesses sooner than required. 

Possible Consequences Of Using Contact Tracing Apps

Negative possibilities that could arise from the use of contact tracing apps are endless. Politicians could release false reports of COVID-19 incidences in the district they’re unlikely to win in. Internet trolls and hackers could decide to release hijacked information just for the fun of it.

National security could be compromised by foreign forces through a false report of coronavirus outbreaks in cities. There are also discriminatory tendencies that could arise such as employers requiring workers to display results on the tracing app before allowing them into workspaces. Several adverse situations could arise from the utilization of contact tracing applications.

Evident Consequences of Contact Tracing Apps

One of the first contact tracing apps used in North and South Dakota, Care 19, has been found to go against its privacy policy. The application sends out user data such as location and other sensitive personal information to third-party firms. Care19, which is available on App Store – which by the way, is supposed to thoroughly scrutinize the app for privacy violations- proves Apple lets the app slide through its filters.

Care 19’s privacy policy clearly states location data is ‘private to you and will not be shared with anyone including government entities or third parties’. Research by the privacy software maker, Jumbo, showed that user data was being sent to Foursquare, a well-known location-data supplier for advertisers.

Sensitive information like location and unique user codes (a series of numbers and letters to protect the anonymity of users) were also being sent to the firm. Apple released a statement saying it had begun investigations into the report by Jumbo.

Do we Trust the Government and Big Tech Firms Enough?

When all is done and dusted, it comes down to trusting the government and technology corporations. Times without number, the government has been found wanting concerning the issue of following their own rules and regulations. Will contact tracing apps be used solely for the elimination of the coronavirus or privacy-breaching purposes such as mass surveillance?

Private information should never have to be at risk of compromise. We have to make certain they never get to the wrong hands. Contact tracing apps are tools that can accelerate the mass privacy breach of citizens. What the world needs right now is a method that jointly preserves our civil liberties and keeps humans safe from the virus.

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