Contact tracing technology: Privacy and trust concerns

The technology, known as contact-tracing, is designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus by telling users they should isolate themselves after contact with an infected individual.
by Tala Ramadan

13 April 2020 | 15:54

Source: by Annahar

  • by Tala Ramadan
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 13 April 2020 | 15:54

This file photo shows the Facebook app icon on an iPhone (AP Photo)

BEIRUT: While scientists around the world work to develop a viable vaccine, coordinated data-sharing has become an essential tool in the ongoing fight against coronavirus.

Mass data collection methods are already being put to use, and tech companies have developed mobile applications in a bid to make people more aware of their surroundings and track the spread of the disease.

Apple and Google are working together to enable a broader Bluetooth-based contact tracing platform by building this functionality into the underlying platforms.

The technology, known as contact-tracing, is designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus by telling users they should isolate themselves after contact with an infected individual.

Apple and Google’s platform will stand as a “more robust solution than an API,” according to Apple, and would allow more individuals to participate if they choose to opt-in, as well as enable interaction with a broader ecosystem of apps and government health authorities.

The platform will be added in mid-may for iPhones and Android phones to wirelessly exchange anonymous information via apps run by public health authorities, and the Silicon Valley rivals will also release frameworks for public health apps to manage the functionality.

Countries including China, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have also adopted some new contact tracing smartphone apps that record symptoms and track users’ movements, in some cases triggering an alarm if the device leaves a quarantine area.

One of the leading Chinese monitoring apps, Alipay Health Code, uses a traffic light system, with a red light requiring mandatory hospital quarantine. Only those whose phone displays a green light are allowed to use facilities such as public transit.

Privacy Concerns

On a privacy level, in parallel with the rush to implement COVID-19 tracking capabilities, important and deep-rooted issues around data collection, storage, user consent, and surveillance will be brushed under the rug.

“Privacy, transparency, and consent are of utmost importance in this effort, and we look forward to building this functionality in consultation with interested stakeholders. We will openly publish information about our work for others to analyze,” Apple said in a press release.

To many, technology is controversial because it involves sharing sensitive health information from billions of people via mobile devices that are constantly broadcasting their location, and some politicians and regulators have been warning that citizens’ privacy should be protected.

Ireland’s government is set to roll out a voluntary phone-tracking app to alert users if someone they have been in contact with develops COVID-19, its health service said earlier last week.

“The app might lead to two separate outcomes,” warned Elizabeth Farries, technology, and human rights expert at the Irish Council for Civil Liberties. “The first is to trace contacts in order to fight COVID-19. The second is to further normalize surveillance.”

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the availability of widespread and free testing to complement the app, and access to mobile phones and other wireless devices is another challenge, aside from privacy and trust concerns.

Although using apps in the context of COVID-19 is useful to the general public to help people report their symptoms and to learn about the virus and the health response.

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