The Privacy Tradeoff With COVID-19 Apps
A number of innovative tools are being called upon to help human society grapple with the coronavirus. Smartphone and computer applications that allow us to record where we’ve been and who we’ve been in contact with - often called “contract tracing” apps - are increasingly being leveraged by localities, states, and national governments alike as they seek to reopen portions of their economy and resume a somewhat normal life.
Leveraging this technology will produce some unintended consequences. While the COVID-19 apps will certainly help us respond to this ongoing public health crisis, there’s no denying that they come with serious privacy tradeoffs.
What is “contact tracing?”
There’s no meaningful way to discuss the privacy implications of COVID-19 apps unless we first define and discuss “contact tracing.” According to the CDC’s official website
, contact tracing is mainly about the tracing and monitoring of infected people and the support of quarantine measures.
Contact tracing entails recording every location that you’ve visited in a recent period and noting who you interacted with and when you were in contact with them.
By doing this, health experts can better identify who has come into contact with a contagion (in this case, COVID-19) and make better informed decisions about who to quarantine for the sake of public health.
Contact tracing is obviously quite difficult; many people can barely remember what they ate for dinner two days ago, let alone all the locations they’ve visited in the past two weeks and all of the people they interacted with.
Health experts and tech gurus have thus been working hand in hand to produce smartphone apps that make contact tracing easily. By giving people an easy way to log their travel patterns and human interactions in the form of an app, these software developers and health experts can ensure everybody, everywhere is contact tracing like never before.
While this is great for public health, it has some serious implications for personal privacy.
A number of stories from the Associated Press have already illustrated that the development and widespread deployment of some contact tracing apps may entail some privacy perils.
“Governments and public health (agencies) want to be able to track people,” according to Tina White, a Stanford University researcher interviewed
by ABC News.
She nevertheless stressed that many everyday people would be hesitant to download such apps if they felt they were having their privacy intruded upon. Privacy advocates, public health experts, and software developers must thus ensure that everyday people understand what downloading such apps actually entails.
Ensuring public health and privacy
Is it possible to ensure public health without violating the privacy of individuals? This question is now confronting researchers and ethical experts like never before.
Major tech companies like Apple and Google have already announced that they’re rolling out Bluetooth-based COVID-19 contact tracing measures, according to a report
Government health agencies will be able to use these apps to better monitor the public’s movements, but the companies have nevertheless reassured the public and made promises about the privacy of these applications.
Wired interviewed many technical experts and ultimately concluded that these apps are “an unproven system whose imperfections could drive users away from adopting it, or even result in unintended privacy violations.”
It nevertheless argued that they could serve as a “significant tool” in fighting future outbreaks, and that the deployment of such applications was almost a guaranteed matter of fact in this day and age. The privacy tradeoffs with COVID-19 apps may thus be unavoidable.
Nevertheless, many everyday people will want their personal interactions with others to remain private. Unfortunately, that may be a thing of the past.
Modern smartphones are already so incredibly advanced that they have already been used
to develop maps showing the effect of social distancing (or the lack thereof).
The front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, two of the largest newspapers in the world, have already prominently featured datagraphics that depend upon such location tracking.
The public, for the most part, seemed interested but mostly unconcerned from a privacy standpoint, given that there were few real protests regarding that data’s usage.
Will tomorrow’s consumer shun smartphones to avoid contract tracing? Almost certainly not. Will people avoid franchise social media
in the future due to privacy concerns?
Definitely not, given their immense social popularity. We may thus have to depend upon senators and other politicians who have introduced legislation
to protect personal privacy in the digital age.
These notable public figures have the authority needed to curtail big tech companies, but even they will fail to provide the privacy provisions that many everyday people will want.
The average citizen and consumer must remain vigilant in the face of privacy violations, as major companies, regulators, and public officials will react to the public more than anything else when mulling new contact tracing measures.
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